Peter Benchley Swims with Sharks
Credit: Chris Polk / Getty Images

Remember, it isn't the shark you see that's gonna get you," said Doc Anes. Doc's cherubic face was in shadow from his wide-brimmed hat, but I could sense his mischievous grin as he steadied one of the two cages at the stern of the boat. The water was rough – a northeast wind had been sweeping down the island for a couple of days, depriving this bay of the shelter it normally gets from the prevailing northwesterlies – and the cages bobbed and clanked and slammed into each other. Built like a barrel of nails, with two Smithfield hams for forearms and a pair of fireplugs for legs, Doc put a foot on one cage and forced it to submit to his will.

He nodded to me, and I took a step toward the ladder that led down into the cage. Looking like Shrek in a dress, I had on a lovely new trilaminate drysuit (accented with zippers rugged enough for a body bag), 40 pounds of lead that hung from my shoulders by chic suspenders, a sleek black neoprene hood, and a snazzy yellow face mask.

The dark blue water sparkled with whitecaps – a scene of perfect harmony, except for the smear of blood and fish guts and oil that spread behind the boat and drifted with the tide. But somewhere out there, cruising, agitated, tantalized by the rich scent lacing the water, was the largest carnivorous fish in the world, one of the few predators left on the planet that poses a genuine threat to man in an environment in which he chooses to go. Somewhere out there – not far, probably close by, perhaps directly under the boat – was a great white shark. At least one, maybe more.

I descended the ladder, and right away I was grateful for the drysuit. The water was frigid, between 61 and 63 degrees Fahrenheit, but I wasn't cold. As soon as I ducked below the surface, I located the regulator mouthpiece and air hose that had been thoughtfully clipped at eye level to one of the aluminum bars of the cage. I purged the mouthpiece, popped it in, and drew a long, easy breath while my wife Wendy was making her way into my cage.

The visibility was terrible, no more than 10 feet; there was no way we'd be able to see a shark, even one as big as –

There she was, hovering perhaps six feet away, as if she had been waiting for us. I held my breath. She was enormous, at least as long as a schoolbus. She turned and showed me her flank, and now "schoolbus" wasn't adequate. Locomotive. That's how big she was, as big as a locomotive, and . . . 

Hold on, I told myself, get a grip, remember: Water magnifies everything by roughly a third. I tried to do a proper measurement. The cages were each 10 feet long. From nose to tail, the shark extended the entire length of my cage and halfway along the next, so she was 15 feet long, roughly. What rendered her gargantuan was her girth. She looked as big around as a midsize SUV. She had to weigh two tons. Four thousand pounds. The mother of all fishes.

With a couple of easy sweeps of her tail, she turned toward the cage and turned again, moseying on by. Rays of sunlight stippled her back with blues and grays; her belly, even in shadow, was ghostly white. She showed us her lower jaw, studded with snaggly gripping teeth. Her upper jaw was curled under, concealing the rows of triangular cutting teeth and giving her the look of a toothless old codger.

But she was no codger. This lady was in the prime of her life. She was gorgeous, physical perfection, an animal so precisely tuned to her environment that it had not been necessary for her kind to evolve significantly in millions upon millions of years. She had been mistress of her world for eons.

Before her majesty, I could feel nothing but puny.

Immediately, words from Henry Beston's celebrated The Outermost House sprang into my mind. (If that seems preposterous, so be it; these words are engraved on my frontal cortex, and they leap to the fore whenever I'm privileged to be in the company of one of nature's magnificent giants.)

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. . . . We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."