I SAW A GREAT WHITE!

My mother, like most, enjoys telling stories of the cute things I did as a kid.  She likes to say that when I was three years old, I was able to identify, and correctly pronounce, all of the dinosaurs pictured in my treasure trove of dinosaur books.   Each night, she would read the books to me, sometimes saying the wrong dinosaur, just to hear me correct her. 

I would say, “That is not a brontosaurus.  That is a Diplodocus.  The Diplodocus has a longer tail, Mama.”

It was the dinosaur books that first introduced me to sharks.  The sharks were always in those books, with references and praises to their longevity.  The books reported that sharks had been swimming in the Earth’s oceans for 300 million years, and are perfectly evolved predators.    

Just after I was born, in 1974, the book Jaws, by Peter Benchley, was released.  Spielberg’s masterpiece film of the same name came out the following year.  By all accounts, the country was on edge, collectively terrified of great white sharks.  As Benchley put it, the thought of being consumed by another animal touches something primal within us, and when the attacker comes from the unseen depths, the thought is terrifying.    

But, for me, at five years of age, and given all of attention on sharks at that time, I was fascinated.  When Jaws 2, the long-awaited sequel, came out in 1978, I begged my Mom to take me to see it.  According to her, I sat on the edge of my seat during the film, my feet on the ground, transfixed as the shark gnawed into one person after another.  I cheered as the shark rampaged the community, and blood filled the water.  I rooted for the monster and when the shark died at the end (spoiler alert!), I cried my tiny face off.

From that day to this, I have always loved sharks and longed to see one in the wild.  For many years, I paddled and paddled, looked and looked, and never saw one.  I paddled thousands of miles on the open ocean, and never a single fin broke the surface of the water that did not belong to a dolphin.  Unlike marine mammals, sharks do not have to surface to breathe so seeing one requires some serious luck. 

But one day, a couple years ago, I finally saw one.  What happened was this:

I was heading straight out to sea away from Newport Harbor, and had gotten only about a half mile off of the jetty.  As I was paddling out to sea toward Catalina, as I had done 100 times before, I suddenly had the strange thought that I was going to see a shark.  That is the oddest thing about this story: I was actually thinking about the possibility of a shark being near me, when there it suddenly was.

I saw the shark’s dorsal fin (the one you always see in Jaws), cutting the surface of the water, leaving a narrow trailing line behind it in the smooth surface of the water.  The fin was only about 50 feet ahead of me.  The shark and I were on parallel tracks heading in opposite directions, only about 10 yards apart.  In other words, the shark was heading toward the harbor mouth, and I was heading away from it. 

I thought, “This can’t be.  It’s a mola mola right?”

But no, when our parallel paths converged, I could see this was clearly a shark.  The shark continued in its straight line and we passed each other like two pedestrians on a wide sidewalk, each giving the other plenty of room.  When it came even with me, I was able to look directly into the water at it, and see its entire body.  At first, I thought it might be a mako shark, because it was only about 6-7 feet long, but it was thicker than a mako, with smaller eyes, and it did not have the spiny protruding teeth of a mako.  It was a juvenile great white, no doubt about it, given its girth and gray markings ending in a white milky belly.  I also noticed there were no “claspers”, the protruding male sex organs, just in front of its tail.  It was a “she”.

I got so excited, I tried to pull my phone from my pocket to video this beauty as she swam past me.  But by the time I got the phone out, and ready to video, she was already 20 feet past me just barely scratching the surface with the tip of her dorsal fin and tail.  I took a short video and realized it showed nothing.

I cursed, and realizing I would lose her if I didn’t start paddling, I threw the phone back in my pocket, spun the board around and chased after her to see if I could get a better shot.  I paddled behind her for a brief moment, when she suddenly flipped herself 180 degrees, with a twitch of her head, and a flash of her tail.  She was now coming right back at me. 

I stopped paddling, wondering what she was going to do.  I thought to myself that this was a small white shark, as far as whites go, but this perfectly evolved killing machine was still larger than me.  And then I thought, “Oh shit, she is coming to check me out!  What if she takes a bite of the board?” 

I stopped paddling and held my paddle at the ready, just in case I needed to fend her off with a jab to the head.  She approached me cautiously, rotated herself slightly as if to get a better look.  She swam to my left, just 10 feet from my board, and then circled me.  She completed a full circle, starting on my left and ending on my right.  While swimming very slowly and deliberately, I craned my neck all the way left, and then whipped it to the right so as not to miss any sudden movements. 

It felt menacing; this cool and relaxed survey of me and my board, her potential prey.  She was in command, the predator in her element.  I was a stranger in her world, an alien utterly unequipped to deal with her attack if her mysterious instincts instructed her to unleash it.  In those brief seconds, I waffled between a feeling of fascination and joy on the one hand, and fight or flight impulses on the other.  I was the passive one, helpless, and waiting to see if she would escalate our little encounter.

But after drawing this relaxed ring around me, she descended slowly, and disappeared entirely.   She had evidently decided I was not food, and that perhaps I could be dangerous, so she moved on.  She was exquisite. 

I exhaled, and even though I was not done with my workout, I decided to call it a day and paddled back.  It was a lifelong dream fulfilled, seeing a white in the wild, and there was no way the day was going to get better than that.

On the way back, I texted the wife, “I SAW A GREAT WHITE!  I SAW A GREAT WHITE!  I SAW A GREAT WHITE!”  She replied, “Wonderful.  Now get off the water!”

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