Peter Benchley Swims with Sharks
Credit: Chris Polk / Getty Images
The shark gazed at Wendy and me with one eye, solid black, utterly without expression, the eye described by Peter Matthiessen in Blue Meridian as "impenetrable and empty as the eye of God." As the shark moved on, Wendy turned to me and made a "Yes!" gesture with her fist. She was ecstatic; this was her first genuine experience with a white shark. We had been on scores of dive trips in our 40 years of marriage, and she'd swum with sharks of many kinds and sizes, but never had she gone eyeball-to-eyeball with a great white. And here, on the first dive of the first day, it had already paid off.

As many times as I've seen white sharks underwater, I'm never bored or blasé. Among fish, among sharks, among predators, they're unique, not only in appearance but in behavior as well. They move with a serenity born of invulnerability, with an inexorable confidence that no predator can harm them and no prey elude them. They don't circle tentatively like other sharks, appraising potential danger; they move straight in and then decide if what they've approached is worth biting.

They also feel good. As beautifully supple as they appear, they're as hard as steel. I wanted to touch the shark's tail fin, to feel once again that too too solid flesh. I put my arm out through a camera port, a gap in the bars on the cage, and reached with my hand for the disappearing tail, and –

Suddenly I was thrown back against the far bars of the cage, knocked aside by a pressure wave. I saw a flash of gray and white streak up from the gloom below, pass within inches of my outstretched arm and lunge at one of the tuna heads that dangled from the boat as bait.

"It's not the shark you see that's gonna get you. . . ."

There were 16 of us, plus a crew of eight, aboard the Horizon, a 75-foot-long dive boat, and we had traveled some 220 miles southwest of San Diego to this isolated rock called Isla Guadalupe. The island itself is a Mexican seal and sea lion sanctuary, though the waters around it are not, and it is all but uninhabited: A tiny colony of artisanal fisherfolk live near the southern end, and they eke out a living from the migrating pelagic fish, mostly varieties of tunas.

Until a few years ago nobody had bothered with Guadalupe for anything but fishing, but then some sport fishermen wondered why most of the big fish they were catching arrived at the back of their boats bitten in half, and from that question a tiny tourist industry was born: great white shark watching. Divers are a questing lot, always searching for new places to go and new animals to see – but for a price. If lions and elephants are among the five or six great prizes for terrestrial photographers, great white sharks are the holy grail for underwater photographers. For decades, however, they were out of range for all but the certifiably wealthy. Accepted wisdom held that great whites could be photographed only in South Australia, and a trip down and back, plus a week on a boat, could cost $7,500 or more.

With the demise of apartheid, South Africa opened up, and great whites were discovered there along the southeast coast. (Discovered by tourists, that is; locals, of course, had known about them forever.) You could venture offshore in a small boat for a single day and see great whites for a very reasonable $100. Still, there was the prohibitive transatlantic and transhemispheric airfare.

Then the word began to spread about Isla Guadalupe, a mere 22-hour boat ride from the U.S. West Coast. For three months of the year – September, October, and November – groups of white sharks visit Guadalupe. (By groups, incidentally, I mean a handful, perhaps two dozen in total. Great whites are solitary by nature and scarce worldwide in the best of times, and these are far from the best of times.) No one is quite sure why they arrive on such a tight schedule or in such a regimented way. First come the young, pre-adult males, 10 or 12 feet long, then the larger, adult males, then the younger females and, finally, in late November, the big mamas: adult, breeding-age females, up to 21 feet long and weighing up to six thousand pounds.

According to Jessie Harper, a tough and resourceful researcher who doubles as a shark wrangler, deck hand, and all-around seaman, the same sharks show up every year, and one of her ongoing projects is to develop a photo archive that lists and identifies individuals by scars, color patterns, and the shape and silhouette of dorsal and tail fins. A curious contradiction inherent in Jessie's work is that despite the popularity of great white sharks, despite the waiting lists of divers, scientists, and photographers eager to join white shark expeditions, any scrap of information Jessie or her colleagues can gather will probably be new and may possibly be of importance. Thirty years after the release of the movie 'Jaws,' and despite countless studies by countless professionals, very, very little is known about great whites.

No one knows for certain how many there are worldwide, how long they live, how old they are when they reach breeding age, how many pups they can have, how far they travel. No one knows whether their diet changes during the course of their lives or if it is possible, as is now being conjectured, that great whites learn from one another, that adults pass information to their young – which, given an odds-on opportunity, they would otherwise gladly eat.

A stable population of great white sharks such as the one at Guadalupe is, therefore, a treasure for researchers.

For the four days we were there, Guadalupe proved to be Fantasy Island. Never had I seen so many white sharks – 17 individuals in all. Never had I seen sharks that were so dependable: In good weather and bad, in clear water and lousy, the sharks were there, crisscrossing the chum slick, charging at the tuna-head baits that trailed behind the boat, performing magnificently for the cameras that protruded from every gap in the bars of both cages.

As predicted, they were all females, all big: The largest was 16 feet long, which meant that underwater she appeared 20 feet long and fully capable of swallowing any one of us whole. Twice, due to the swinging of the boat at anchor and the movement of the cages, the hanging baits dangled directly in front of the camera ports, and twice sharks lunged for the bait, missed, and jammed their heads inside the cage. Unable to swim backward, panicked by the sudden imprisonment, they thrashed and rolled and slammed the cages against the boat, and for a moment there seemed a fair chance that one might tear a cage away from the boat and take its four occupants out into the open, where it might . . . well, who knew?

But it never happened. The crew, under Doc's supervision, maneuvered cages, sharks, and people with great skill. The sharks swam free, and everyone returned from every dive unscratched, unscathed, and untraumatized . . . 

 . . . until supper on the final evening, just before we began the run back to San Diego.

Someone said, "Did you see that new one today, the one with the big breeding scars on her gills?"

Someone else said, "What about her?"

"She had a hook and six feet of wire leader sticking out of her mouth."

There was silence until one of the crew said, "The other day, some of the local fishermen came by and said they'd seen a big sportfishing boat hooked into two white sharks. They said they went up to the boat in their panga [boat] and asked the guys to unhook, and the guys fucked 'em off. So they cut the lines. Then they took off, figuring the guys probably had guns aboard."

"Did they report the boat?" I asked. "Call the Mexican coast guard?"

"The name, home port, and numbers had been painted over, but it wouldn't have done any good anyway."

"Why not?"

"Fishing for white sharks isn't illegal," he said. "Not in Mexico. It's not popular, nobody likes it, but it's done. A really huge jaw can bring a guy 10,000 bucks."

With that, Fantasy Island suddenly became the island of the doomed. These great white sharks, these exquisite examples of natural perfection, might be wiped out within a year or two. And not just this population. Despite a few very important recent developments in conservation, worldwide the odds remain stacked against the survival of sharks in general and of great white sharks in particular. Having endured – triumphed! – through uncountable, unknowable cataclysms to reign unchallenged over the oceanic food chain for scores of millions of years, these hardy apex predators may come to terminal grief in the greedy grip of the most savage, random, destructive slaughterer of all: us.