Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

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05/02/2005: The Devil’s Teeth

I swear -- just mention a topic and before you know it -- things just start popping up about it out of the mysterious void of the Ethernet.

I was talking about the “robotic fish” picture with faf (over at fafblog), so I had to mention the Robo-Shark
(WARNING: picture) and the Official Robo-Shark Website (WARNING: More Pictures)...

...and before I could even say Selachophobia --It’s Shark week on the NGC channel; the Shedd Aquarium (here in Chicago) is running it’s usual Shark feeding frenzies in their Giant Shark tank; AOL had this one: Shark attacks Man: Fends it off with Surfboard; and even Sports Illustrated has gotten in the act with an article about how just off the coastal shores of California’s San Francisco Bay there is a yearly gathering of Great White Sharks.

For those of you not concerned about More Selachophobia Nightmares or just Just Swimming Against The Stream…click on the “more” button to read this story below the fold:

Here are some excerpts from this article The Devil’s Teeth (Note: this link may not work because SI wants subscribers only.)

"Excerpted from The Devil's Teeth, by Susan Casey, to be published by Henry Holt and Company in June. Casey, former managing editor of Sports Illustrated Women, is Time Inc.'s development editor.
An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.

-- John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez

The killing took place at dawn, and as usual it was a decapitation, accomplished by a single vicious swipe. Blood geysered into the air and created a vivid slick that stood out on the water like the work of a violent abstract painter. Five hundred yards away, outside a lighthouse on the highest peak of Southeast Farallon Island, a man watched through a telescope. First he noticed the frenzy of gulls, and then he saw the blood. Grabbing his radio, he turned and began to run.

His transmission jolted awake the four other people on the island: "We've got an attack off Sugarloaf, big one, lotta blood." The house at the bottom of the hill echoed with the sounds of biologist Peter Pyle hurrying down the stairs, pulling on his knee-high rubber boots and slamming the old door behind him as he sprinted to the boat launch.

Peter and his colleague Scot Anderson, the voice on the radio, jumped into their 17-foot Boston Whaler. The boat, which rested on a bed of rubber tires beside a cliff, was attached to a crane that now lifted it into the air, swung it over the lip and lowered it 30 feet into the massive autumn swells of the Pacific. The Whaler rose and fell into troughs big enough to swallow it. Peter started the engine and powered 200 yards toward the birds, where the object of their attention floated in a cloud of blood: a quarter-ton elephant seal missing its head. The odor was dense and oily -- rancid Crisco mixed with seawater. "Oh, yeah," Peter said. "That's the smell of a shark attack."

The two men knew that below them a great white was orbiting and would soon be returning for its breakfast. It might be Betty or Mama or the Cadillac, one of the huge females that patrolled the east side of the island. These girls, all of them more than 17 feet long, were known as the Sisterhood. Or it might be a "smaller" male (13 or 14 feet), such as Spotty or T-Nose or the sneaky Cal Ripfin. These sharks were called the Rat Pack. At this time of year there were scores of great whites swimming close to the shore of Southeast Farallon as hapless seals were swept off the island at high tide and into the danger zone.

In any given year more than a thousand people will be injured by toilet bowl cleaning products or killed by cattle. Fewer than a dozen will be attacked by a great white shark. In this neighborhood, however, those odds do not count. At the Farallon Islands during September, October and November, your chances of meeting a great white face-to-face are better than 50-50, should you be crazy enough or unlucky enough to end up in the water.

Peter and Scot stood at the stern holding poles with video cameras on the end. There were several beats of the absolute silence you rarely got in life, eerie moments when time seemed to stop and even the birds were quiet. Then, 50 yards away, the ocean swirled into a boil.

The dorsal fin of myth and nightmare rose from below and came tunneling toward them like a U-boat, creating a sizable wake. The shark made a tight pass around the Whaler, pulling up just short of the stern. "He's coming up!" Peter yelled. The Whaler rocked. A huge triangular head rose out of the water and, with surprising delicacy, bit the back corner of the boat. Scot leaned closer and filmed. The shark's black eyes rolled; the men could see the scars all over its head, and its two-inch-long teeth backed by rows of spare two-inch-long teeth. Then, as quickly as it had come, the shark slipped beneath the surface, dived under the boat and reemerged next to the seal. As it snatched the carcass and shook it, bright orange blood burst from the sides of the great white's mouth. "It's Bitehead!" Scot said. He broke into a broad smile.

"Ah, Bitehead," Peter said, as if fondly greeting an acquaintance on the street. "We've known this shark for 10 years."

Every fall, one of the world's largest and densest congregations of great white sharks assembles in the waters surrounding the Farallones, a 211-acre archipelago of 10 islets 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. No one fully understands what this gathering represents -- why great whites, the ocean's most solitary hunters, come together in such close quarters. What's known is that the sharks remain at this location for about three months. And this: The same sharks always return to exactly the same spot, as Scot and Peter know after studying them for more than 15 years in the Farallon White Shark Project.

This annual reunion is at least partly about hunting. Despite strange items found in great whites' stomachs -- a cuckoo clock, a fur cape, license plates and lobster traps, a buffalo head, an entire reindeer and even a man dressed in a full suit of armor -- what these sharks really love to eat are seals. And the Farallones are loaded with seals: northern elephant seals, harbor seals, fur seals, all barking and bellowing, draped on the rocks like a blubbery carpet.

It wasn't always this way. The islands' seals, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, were hunted almost to extinction 150 years ago. Only after Southeast Farallon Island, the largest in the group, became a wildlife refuge in 1969 did the populations begin to recover. And as the seals returned, no one was happier to see them than the sharks. By the year 2000 Peter and Scot were logging almost 80 attacks per season. Still, even considering the allure of a seal smorgasbord, why did these particular sharks keep returning? And why were they clustered so tightly? No one had observed such behavior among great whites before.

Not that there's been much opportunity. The Farallones are the best place on earth to study great whites behaving naturally in the wild. The sharks there might cross paths with the occasional boatload of day-trippers from San Francisco, but they're subjected to none of the behavior-altering coercion that other top predators endure so that people can look at them from Winnebagos or tundra buggies or safari trucks. This is important because even though sharks have been around so long that they predate trees, great whites have remained among the most mysterious of creatures.

How long do they live? Unknown (but probably at least 30 years). Where do they mate, and when, and how often, and, for the matter, how? There are clues but no hard facts. Scot and Peter have discovered that while the males return annually, the females return only every other year, often with fresh bites on their heads. Are these wounds related to mating? Do the females spend the off years giving birth in warmer waters? And just how many great whites are there in the oceans? All of this is a mystery. Even the seasonal shark population at the Farallones is a wild guess: anywhere from 30 to 100.

Then, of course, there's the question of size: Exactly how big can great white sharks get? Again there is no straight answer. Because their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone, sharks have left virtually no fossil record aside from teeth. The largest great white to have been caught and measured was 21 feet long, but there have been credible reports of much larger specimens.

That is not surprising. Sharks are the heavyweight champions of evolution; they've been fine-tuning their act for hundreds of millions of years. They're resistant to infection, circulatory disease and, to a large extent, cancer. They heal rapidly from severe injuries such as lacerated corneas and deep gouges. Everything about them is stacked toward survival. From the moment baby whites are born, four feet long and fully formed, they are in pursuit of their first meal. From hundreds of yards away they can detect .005 microvolt electrical impulses given off by their prey's heartbeats.

Like the great white itself, the Farallon Islands are nearly perfect freaks of nature. Their ecology is a house of cards: an intricate construction of ocean and seals and birds and sharks, all in sublime balance. But in nature, complexity also means fragility. The islands are hollow in places and made of 89-million-year-old granite, much of which has gone rotten and crumbles at the touch. The Spanish word farallón means "rocky islet in the ocean" (the pronunciation of the plural, farallones, has been Anglicized to FAIR-a-lons), and some of the islands, like Middle Farallon, known locally as the Pimple, are little more than rocks protruding from the water. All 10 islets are part of the ragged edge of the continental shelf as it rears out of the Pacific before plunging two miles -- twice the depth of the Grand Canyon -- into darkness. Technically the Farallones are just an exotic neighborhood of San Francisco, lying as they do within the city limits, but few of the Bay Area's seven million residents are aware of the islands' existence.

This obscurity is understandable. The boat ride from the mainland -- a riot of turbulence and nausea -- can last more than six hours. No one lives year-round at the Farallones. Peter, Scot and a revolving handful of colleagues bunk in the only habitable building, a 120-year-old house on 65-acre Southeast Farallon that has stood up to lashings of the meanest weather the Pacific can dish out. Thirty-knot winds, blanketing fog and 15-foot seas are standard.

The islands jut from the Pacific like the fangs of a sea monster badly in need of dental work. Sailors referred to them as "the devil's teeth" in testament to both their appearance and the nautical dangers they posed. Even if a visitor is hardy enough to make the trip to the Farallones, upon arrival he cannot set foot aground -- the islands are a tightly supervised National Wildlife Refuge within a National Marine Sanctuary, and the only people allowed there by federal law are the biologists who monitor the sharks and other wildlife. In any case, there's nowhere to land a boat. The islands' perimeters are composed of sheer cliffs and treacherous hidden rocks. A quarter-million seabirds spend the year painting these rocks with guano, and the stench of ammonia will knock you back on your heels. Planes may not fly directly overhead. Boats are required to remain at least 300 feet offshore. And you sure as hell don't want to go in for a dip.

Just stepping onto Southeast Farallon is a white-knuckle affair requiring physical agility and no fear of heights. You must either be hoisted from a skiff by crane and then winched up a cliff on a metal disk the size of a manhole cover, or leap ashore from a bucking Zodiac and scramble up a rock face while hauling gear, making sure to time the waves just right so they don't pluck you off like lint and sweep you out to sea. All this takes place in a constricted area that allows the person steering the boat no room for error. To the right, waves and eddies boil over a narrow gulch fringed by toothy rocks. At left, the ocean explodes against granite outcroppings, sending sheets of spray into the air. Above: thousands of dive-bombing seagulls. Below: a ring of great white sharks.

When all these impediments are taken into account, there is really only one reason to visit the Farallon Islands: They are the spookiest, wildest place on earth.

One morning Peter was sitting on the front steps of the house, eyeing a perfect eight-foot barrel wave that rolled along an area known as Shark Alley. That surf, unsurprisingly, had never been ridden. Not for lack of surfboards, though. There was a bunch of them in the biologists' supply shed; Scot used the boards as decoys to lure sharks to the surface for photo I.D.'s. To a shark, apparently, a six-foot swallowtail does a near perfect imitation of a seal. When retrieved, the decoys were often missing hubcap-sized chunks from their sides, and surfers had taken to sending Scot their castoffs, hoping to repossess them after the sharks had taken a bite.

According to Scot and Peter, the Queen Annihilator of Surfboards was a shark named Stumpy. Stumpy was 19 feet long and weighed 5,000 pounds, and when she was in residence, she ruled the Farallones. "She was the only shark that I think understood what we were trying to do," Peter recalled, "and she didn't care for it. When Scot was first putting out the decoys, Stumpy would just come up and destroy them, more because she didn't like them than because she was fooled by their silhouettes."

Stumpy patrolled a swath of sea near the main boat-launching spot at East Landing. For prey, this was not an advisable route onto shore. "No seal gets by her," Peter said. And while other sharks would take 20 minutes or more to consume their kills, Stumpy could polish off a 500-pound elephant seal in three minutes flat. Though the distinctively cropped tail fin that earned Stumpy her name hadn't been spotted for several years, Scot and Peter still talked about her with awe. "Stumpy was a goddess," Peter said. One time, Scot rigged a video camera under a surfboard to determine the angle from which the sharks attacked. He set the board adrift off East Landing. Right on cue Stumpy went at it with everything she had. The resulting footage was stunning, all teeth and whitewater and smashing noises that brought to mind a subaquatic train wreck. It was the first time anyone had successfully filmed a great white shark underwater in California.

Now Scot suddenly stood up. "There's something going on down there," he said, pointing toward the wave. Even without binoculars I could see the black dorsal fin. It carved a few tight circles, like a figure skater practicing, and disappeared into the surf. We decided to launch the Whaler and take a look.
Motoring into Mirounga Bay, we cut the engine about 300 yards from shore. Scot tied the surfboard to a fishing line and tossed it off the back. We drifted in silence. The only noises were the wind chuffing by and the water lightly slapping the side of the boat. I kept my eyes on the surfboard.

"Shark approaching." Peter said this softly. A shark's presence is always announced by a boil, the flat surface pattern made by its powerful tail fin right before it breaks the surface. In the next second the shark appeared, knifing toward the boat. Suddenly the Whaler felt ridiculously small.

The first thing I noticed about the shark was its immense girth. I had known that a shark might be as long as the Whaler, but I didn't expect it to be as wide too. A 20-foot shark is eight feet wide and six feet deep. That's wider than Yao Ming is tall. Another thing about white sharks: They're black. Not inky black like orcas but a mottled charcoal that takes on a luminous sheen below the water's surface. Only their undersides are white. This two-color scheme means that from below great white sharks look as flimsy as ghosts, while from above they possess the solidity of lead.

This particular shark, which looked to be about 15 feet long, glided under us, then came to the surface and bumped the back of the boat. Its head was scribbled with black scars that appeared to have come from deep punctures, as though someone had played tic-tac-toe there with an ice pick. Each shark has a signature set of divots, spots, scars and scratches, or chinks taken out of its fin, but this one looked as if it had lost a knife fight. I felt a very old part of my brain, the part that served us so well back on the veld, snap to attention. As the shark cruised around us, though, it seemed as unthreatening as a cocker spaniel looking for scraps under the dinner table. "They have split personalities," Scot said.

"When they're in attack mode, their dispositions change." He explained that the shark was merely investigating us. Being a savvy hunter, it wasn't about to launch itself full tilt at something that might hurt it. This mode of behavior is the reason that many people who encounter great whites in the water will live.

Now there were three sharks circling us. They seemed -- as unlikely as it sounds -- almost gentle. They kept their distance from one another but were all working from the same playbook, looping from every possible angle, swimming about six feet below the surface so their fins stayed submerged, trying to figure out whether the Whaler represented food. They were in no hurry. They dived beneath the Whaler, bumped it, slapped it with their tails.

Looking over the side, I came face-to-face with a shark arrowing straight up from below; this was how they rushed their prey. I could see its eyes and its crooked, fiendish smile. "Oh, my God!" I said, lunging back. "White sharks have this great grin on their faces when they're coming right at you," Peter said. "It's cute."

Then, off the bow, I saw a tail that dwarfed the others'. The shark was so enormous that even with its back end next to the boat, I couldn't make out its front half. This great white had a different aura. It could only be a Sister. Her tail gleamed, and it bore absolutely no scars. She swam with power and unlikely grace, a Sherman tank making dressage moves. As she vanished into the depths, another shark emerged from the darkness, making several quick runs under the Whaler. Scot leaned over the edge to get a better look. "Hey, that's Cuttail!" he shouted. Cuttail was a Rat Packer, back at the Farallones for the 13th consecutive year.

The sharks kept coming and coming. At least five visited the boat. Even when great whites are in quiet reconnaissance mode, you can feel their approach -- a phenomenon acknowledged by researchers, surfers and divers. Surfers refer to this sixth sense as "that sharky feeling" and "the creeps." Peter referred to it as "being in the groove."

Why did i care so much about these fish? Why did we all? They were always in my thoughts, even when I was sleeping. Great whites are simply different from other animals. As the Australian diver and underwater cinematographer Ron Taylor once put it, "My own feeling was that there was a strong intelligent personality behind the black orb. Not evil, but more alien and sinister than that."

Even the word shark is sleek and cutting, like a stick whittled to a sharp point. One theory traces the word to the Mayan Xoc, the name of a demon god that resembled a fish. Shark might also be related to the German schurke, which means shifty criminal; regardless, the word didn't come into usage until 1570, long after the ancient Greeks and Romans became aware of a fish that could tear people apart. There were classical references to oceangoing men chewed to the bone, but the Greeks and Romans didn't know much more than that. So they made stuff up.

In Pliny the Elder's 37-volume natural history, which appeared in A.D. 78, the Roman scholar speculated that fossilized sharks' teeth, which were then (and are still) found in significant quantities on land, rained from the sky during lunar eclipses. Later, a more sophisticated theory came along: The teeth were the tongues of serpents that had been turned to stone by Saint Paul on the island of Malta. They were thought to have magical properties, notably the ability to counteract poisons. It wasn't until the mid-17th century that the Danish scientist Steno discovered their true origin: He'd had the opportunity to dissect the head of a great white that had been captured off the coast of Italy.

A century later the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus created the scientific nomenclature system, and finally the great white had an official title: Squalus carcharias. Later, when more shark species had been identified, the great white became Carcharodon carcharias, which means "ragged tooth."

Certainly no one could have guessed that the ancestors of these raggedy-toothed fish had been patrolling the seas since the Devonian period, 400 million years ago. That era, 200 million years before the first dinosaurs arrived and 395 million years before our own ancestors appeared in Africa, is now referred to as the Age of Fishes. Among the sharks that made their debut in the Devonian was Dunkleosteus (loosely translated: "terrible fish"), more than 17 feet long and sporting protective armor and self-sharpening hatchet jaws. The Carboniferous period that followed, known as the Golden Age of Sharks, featured such unique creatures as Helicoprion, a shark with a wheel of teeth that resembled a buzz saw, and Edestus giganteus, a 20-foot-long hyperpredator with teeth that protruded beyond its jaw like a pair of Ginsu pinking shears. But the most impressive set of teeth ever to have graced the earth belonged to a shark called Carcharodon megalodon, which lived between 20 million and 1.5 million years ago. Megalodon is best imagined as a great white blown up to parade-float size. Its teeth, which could exceed seven inches in length, are plentiful enough to have become a fixture on eBay -- though the best-preserved specimens sell for lavish amounts of cash among fossil collectors.

Megalodon is candy to cryptozoologists, who love to imagine that somewhere in the Marianas Trench or some other unfathomable abyss it still lives. After all, other long-lost and unknown creatures have been retrieved from the depths. A new shark called the megamouth, a 14-footer with Jaggeresque lips the size of Chevrolet bumpers, was hauled up in 1976. But, sadly for monster lovers, the general consensus is that megalodon has flatlined. Hiding, even in the pit of the sea, would be tough for a 50-foot fish, but more important, megalodon never adapted to the deep ocean. And so it has fallen to great white sharks, which appeared in their current form about 11 million years ago, to occupy the bean-shaped niblet of our cerebral cortex reserved for fear of being eaten by something -- particularly something that hides in another element, waiting to burst into ours.

There are 368 known species of shark swimming around today, and they're almost preposterously diverse. We've got angel sharks that are flat, like shark bath mats; green lantern sharks the size of goldfish; reclusive Greenland sharks, with mottled skin and poisonous flesh, living under ice; goblin sharks, with what looks like a pink letter opener affixed to their heads. We're scared of most of them, though most of the cultural angst centers on the four species that have repeatedly ingested humans: the tiger, the bull, the oceanic whitetip and the great white.

It's becoming clear that white sharks are not malevolent, indiscriminate robohunters -- in fact, they exhibit certain behaviors more appropriate to mammals than fish. A great white's vision is obviously more developed than was previously realized; no other shark lifts its head out of the water to size up its surroundings. The ability to see well, on top of a sense of the subtlest electrical impulses, enables whites to tweak their hunting strategies on the fly. And then there's the aura of gentleness they project when they're not hunting.

More intriguing still are the relationships the Farallon sharks seem to have among themselves. They aren't organized pack hunters, like orcas, but they keep an eye on one another and stay in what scientists refer to as loose aggregations. So when an attack takes place, all the sharks in the area know about it and go straight to the scene. And even if there's a traffic jam at the carcass, they don't get worked up into a feeding frenzy. They establish a buffet line according to hierarchy: the larger the shark, the sooner it eats. Oh, there might be attempts to cut the line, but this is a risky strategy, and some of the Rat Packers are missing pieces of their fins to prove it. Sisters have the right-of-way at a kill, with Rat Packers orbiting at a respectful distance, cadging leftovers.

Another thing sharks aren't supposed to have is a personality. Yet one of the most intriguing discoveries of the Shark Project is that they do. There are aggressors and there are clowns; there are mellow sharks and peevish sharks and sharks that mean absolute bloody business. In a segment of the television show Animal Planet filmed in 1999, Scot admitted that he and Peter were emotionally involved in their study. "It's unexpected to get on a personal level with the sharks," he said, looking a little sheepish. "It's turned into more than just research. We've actually got a relationship with them."
In the same program a South African shark researcher described one of his study animals, a big female named Rasta, as "the sort of shark you want to just jump up and hug. Whenever it comes to the boat, you're just so happy, like a little kid."

It struck me as surreal to be floating among great whites only a 30-mile hop from Union Square, but there was something even stranger going on only 200 yards away. Smack in the middle of Stumpy's lair, just about the last place you'd consider dipping your toe, a boat was anchored, and a man was climbing out of the water. His name was Ron Elliott. Ron was the last commercial diver at the Farallones. He picked urchins, working solo from his boat, an immaculate aluminum crabber with a sky-blue shark stenciled on the gunwale. The boat was named GW. I could see Ron standing alone on deck in a hooded wet suit. "He keeps a real low profile," Scot said. "Doesn't even have a deckhand." Clearly, they were in awe of this guy. And after seeing firsthand what lives in these waters, so was I.

Ron didn't always have the Farallones to himself. Though the cold, dark waters here are forbidding even without the sharks, numerous divers once worked them -- for abalone, for urchins, even for sport. On Sunday, Jan. 14, 1962, to cite just one incident, more than 100 divers arrived at Southeast Farallon for a spearfishing competition. At about 10:30 in the morning a spearfisherman named Floyd Pair had just surfaced about 100 yards from shore when something hit him from below. Confused, he looked down and saw a 14-foot shark with his right leg in its mouth. Pair whacked the shark repeatedly with his spear gun as he yelled for help, and the great white swam off -- toward the other divers. Even after all the spearfishermen were safely back on board and the emergency helicopter had been called, the shark remained at the surface, circling. Pair lived, but he had "serious fanglike lacerations" that missed his femoral artery by less than a centimeter.

Later that same year the Mighty Skin Divers Club of San Francisco anchored at Middle Farallon, a nubbin of rock about three miles north of Southeast Farallon. It was Nov. 11, the height of shark season, although no one knew that at the time. The sport of scuba was new, and divers were excited to photograph the psychedelically colored fish that lived on the marine shelf next to the islet. The 30 club members were guided by Leroy French and Al Giddings, two experienced divers.

At the end of the first dive Giddings stood on deck, counting heads. One diver was missing. Giddings turned and saw a shark at least 16 feet long thrashing on the surface. Leroy French was in its mouth. The shark lifted its enormous tail, slammed it down and, as the scuba club watched in horror, dragged French underwater. Giddings heroically jumped in and swam to the spot where his colleague had gone under. Seconds later French's life jacket inflated, and he popped to the surface clawing at the water and screaming. With the help of another diver named Donald Joslin, Giddings got French back to the boat. French was then airlifted to the Harbor Emergency Hospital in San Francisco, where 480 stitches were required to close his wounds.

And so it went through the '60s, '70s and '80s, as more and more people discovered the hard way that the Farallones were not an ideal diving locale. Scuba clubs went elsewhere. Spearfishermen followed. The abalone and urchin divers, however, remained for a time. Yet the sharks made increasingly frequent appearances as the seals returned, and there were several near fatal attacks on divers and other close calls. One by one the divers lost their nerve.

Soon it was only Ron. At first Peter and Scot thought he was suicidal. He had a knack for anchoring at the scene of the latest shark attack, and the biologists worried that any day they would be picking up Ron's body. But the years went by, and he kept diving, often calling on the radio at day's end with valuable observations about shark behavior. The three men became friends.
Today the GW was anchored in front of the dramatic, cathedral-like Great Murre Cave, whose opening is a 200-foot vertical slash in the rock. This was Sisterhood Country. We tied alongside; Ron stood on deck. He was a trim guy in his early 50s with a brush cut and eyes that, while kind, didn't miss much. The talk turned immediately to great whites. I asked Ron how many times he'd seen sharks while diving at the Farallones. He thought for a minute, scratched the side of his neck. "Well, I don't really count, but, ahhhh, at least ... three, four hundred."

Over time I would come to understand Ron's attitude toward the sharks. Emotion didn't enter into it. In his mind they were doing their job, same as he was. And if Ron occasionally had to hide from them under rocks or fend them off with his urchin basket -- well, that was just another day at the office.

Only the week before, in fact, he had jumped into the water at Shubrick Point and practically landed on one of the Sisters. She swam away and then turned, mouth wide open, and barreled toward him. "She tried to give me a little love bite," Ron said. "I shoved my urchin basket in her nose, and she flipped around and attacked the basket, shook it over my head, bent my arm, sent me sailing." Ron's wet suit hood was ripped from his head, his mask jammed down around his neck, his nose bloodied. Then the shark turned and whacked him with its tail. "I thought she broke my face," he said. "She kept circling me, following me. She wasn't one of those ones you could bluff out."

But Ron didn't mind the danger involved in diving at the Farallones. In fact, he liked it -- the diceyness meant that everyone else stayed away. He'd started out diving for urchins in Southern California in the '70s, and when he and his wife, Carol, moved north to Point Reyes, he looked out at the Farallones and realized that for urchins, it was the place to go. The first time he dived there, in 1989, he encountered a 17-foot shark.

I asked him how Carol felt about his job site. "She's O.K. with it," he said, then paused. "Well, maybe she's getting a little tired of it. But she knows that if something happens, I'd rather have it happen out here than, you know, in a car."

It was dusk; it was time to leave. The ocean looked as black as tar. As we pushed off from the GW, I turned to Scot and Peter, the question clear on my face. How could anyone do this for a living? "Ron's all about competence," Peter said. It was hard to believe that all the competence in the world could keep a diver safe in a place where a floating surfboard might draw a shark within seconds. How long could Ron's mix of skill, sangfroid and luck hold out?

As we drove back to East Landing, I pointed at everything -- gulls, shadows on the water, nothing in particular -- thinking it was a shark. "You've got sharks on the brain," Scot said. "That happens. You just can't be close to a creature like this and not be affected. You see their eyes, and you know they're looking at you."

That night I dreamed of sharks again. I recognized them gliding by: Stumpy, Cuttail and the unknown Sister with her monstrous tail. At the Farallones shark dreams are so common and vivid that there is a section in the biologists' logbook devoted to recounting them; Scot said he still had them every night. In my dream it was dark, and I was alone, drifting in a small boat. Once again I looked down as shadowy creatures swam beneath me, just barely visible by moonlight. And all night, majestic and terrible fish cruised through the bedroom in otherworldy silence."

Karen on 05.02.05 @ 04:22 AM CST

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