Dive in the Water. Swim with the Sharks

By Russell Jacobs

I've discovered that it still dark at 4:30am.

Its barely sunrise as about 8 of us muscle the shark cage onto the dive platform on the stern of the Aquatica. The shark cage is about 20'x10'x5' and spans the width of the boat. We depart Wilmington harbor about 7:30 am Saturday thru a seemingly endless alley of container ships. Those suckers are big and then they stack 7 tiers of containers on 'em. A dozen divers, 2 snorkeling adolescents and five crew make up the contingent. Renee cooks a scrumptious breakfast (as were all her meals and snacks). Sun is out and seas so smooth that we barely notice passing out of the breakwater. These all too smooth sailing conditions will prove to be a disability. About an hour out we encounter a group of a dozen dolphin that proceed to ride the bow waves and leap and leap and leap. One in particular makes an absolutely incredible bound, clearing the water by his body length. He hangs in the blue sky above the gray sea with the brown mountains behind for an eternity, then slips once more into the sea. This pod leaves us after about a quarter hour, but an hour later we are into another pod of many hundreds. Largest pod anybody on board including the crew has ever seen around here. They were everywhere! I found especially intriguing that 4 at a time will 'ride' the turbulence at the bow of the boat with none more than a foot from the hull. We easily make out scars and scratches and scrapes on their sleek torsos. None are unblemished. All have marks of being an intimate part of the food chain. We make for a point somewhat up current of Avalon Banks where chumming begins. Avalon Banks is a relative shallows (~1200ft) about 7 miles east of Avalon Harbor in a deep channel (3000-4000ft) that runs between Catalina Island and the mainland, thus a location where pelagic life forms congregate.

The idea behind chumming is to lay down a curtain of flavor in the ocean so that any shark that may encounter the curtain will follow it up current to the source. Said shark, of course, hopes to find dinner. We, of course, hope he finds us and of course, that we don't become dinner. The more extensive the curtain, the greater the chance sharks encounter it and will eventually find us. To begin, Manny (the majordomo of the whole operation aboard the Aquatica) brings out a large plastic tub with four fist-sized holes about half way up one end. Into this he puts a 24x18x4inch frozen slab of mackerel, water is started flowing in and he begins scrapping the mackerel'sickle with an old paddle. The tub end with holes is positioned out over the edge of the deck and delicious (to the sharks, we hope) flavor flows out the holes in the tub. We go thru a couple of hour of chumming and 2 mackerel'sickles, as we slowly motor up current a couple miles. While starting the process, Manny gave a small talk on what little is known about shark 'ecology' and was quite candid about the pros & cons of chumming. They are part of a shark-tagging project and have tagged several hundred over the past 5-6 years. Only one of their tagged specimens has been caught by a fisherman in Japan more than a year after the tagging.

Once over Avalon Banks we cut power and sit. Manny brings out fresh whole mackerel and rough cuts a half dozen into each of 4 plastic crates each about a foot cubed. The crates are hung over the side just into the water. The idea being that the general jostling of the boat will tear up the fish, pieces will drift down current and provide more concentrated flavor for the sharks to follow to us. The crew moves the shark cage from the stern to the port side. Glass flat seas and small current means that most of our flavorful stuff drops straight down. This minimizes our curtain of flavor and chance of attracting shark. Lunchtime. Lots of gazing out over the sea. Avalon 6 miles west looks but a good swim away and even San Clemente Island is visible in the distance. 1 pm our first shark shows! A 3' foot Blue. He noses around one chum box after another, comes, and goes. The Blue shark is a scavenger and skittish, so we wait, letting them get acquainted with us. Another small one shows, then a somewhat larger female. Manny gets into the cage as do several others, including yours truly. We are 'greeted' by a 4' beauty of a Blue. With mask and snorkel, I hang onto the cage and she is a hand's breath from my nose. I see her gills ruffle as the water runs thru them. Awesome rows of teeth, but they seem not so much fearsome as an integral part of her whole. Opal underbelly and a blue gray not quite iridescent dorsal half. I'm out of the cage to give others room. Three drop lines are dropped out the stern and starboard side. Manny briefs us, one diver and one safety on each line, 20 minute rotations, if we site any Mako or White's everybody is outta the water immediately, if your safety gives the surface sign, just do it, enter with empty BC and drop right down to 25', keep your eyes open, enjoy. To 'maintain our personal space' divers have a 3' long piece of 2inch diameter PVC pipe. We're to hold it vertical and parallel to our body at arms length in front of us, no poking or prodding, just keep it between one's body and shark. If necessary, gently but firmly press back on the shark's sensitive nose. Manny says "OK, who's going divin?" This is why I'm here, so I'm first in line. Manny is my safety. He enters, looks around quickly and motions me in. We're on the end of the drop line at 25' back to back. Vis is 30' max. Small bits of fish are everywhere, we are chumming, after all. Down is forever; it just gets darker green in that direction. After 5-10 minutes, other pairs of divers populate the other 2 drop lines. We hang and watch. We watch and hang. We hang and watch. Interesting jellyfish float leisurely by. Water temp is 57F. Where are the shark? Too much adrenaline to be bored, but not enough to keep out the cold. I look at the other two sets of diver hanging on the end of weighted lines and it enters my mind that we must closely resemble 3 baited lines. My 20 minutes are up and nary a shark in sight. I surface and Mike G. with a video camera takes my place. Needless to say, not 30 seconds after I exit, the sharks show up. Mike G. gets some great footage and hangs off the dive platform getting more footage after his rotation. Finally my turn comes again and it was well worth the wait. A couple of 3'-4' Blues are around and about and nothing less than entrancing. Then a 7' footer languidly slips out of the murk, cruising within arms length of me and around my safety & me. Surprisingly, the dominant emotion is not fear, but awe. This creature is the epitome of elegance. She then cruises away toward one of the other pairs of divers. A brown streak darts by the shark, stops on the proverbial dime about 20' away, and streaks back to the shark. This curious sea lion then proceeds to dance with the shark for the next 10 minutes. All the while the shark seems to ignore the sea lion, being aloof from it all. It is absolutely hilarious, as well as sublime. Picture a red rubber ball nosed clown with flippers for shoes tango-ing with a svelte lady in evening dress (who is leading) and you have it. There is a place for each and at the best of times it is the same place. I don't surface until the show is over and haven't noticed the cold. After another half hour, the sun is beginning to set and there is only a small Blue still hanging around. We have one mackerel' sickle left which is pitched out to him. He and the gulls love it. They are still gnawing on it as we leave a half hour later.

Short cruise to Hen Rock about 6 miles NW of Avalon where we have dinner and prepare for a night dive. Most are going after lobster. I buddy with Mike L. (seem to be about 4 Mikes on the boat this weekend) who also just wants to enjoy the sights. Many nooks and crannies around the Rock. We almost immediately see a couple of arm length lobsters. Mike finds an eel and an octopus. There are many many sleeping wrasse in the nooks. There was also the largest sculpin I've ever seen, about 2' long. We run into several more much larger than legal lobster. After about 30 min, I get the shakes, too damned cold even with a 7mm wetsuit. Mike seemed happy to call it a night, too. The hunters don't get but about 4 lobster and none as big as those we saw. Poetic justice? We moor near Casino Point off Avalon. Many go into town. Having just had 3 concatenated 20-hour days, I hit the sack at 9pm.

Up at just in time to be greeted by the rising sun. Coffee, schmooze with the crew, laze about as others rise & we breakfast. The wreck of the Valiant is nearby. It was a large gambling house ship that took fire & sank in the late 40's or early '50s. Harbormaster told Manny its ~100 yards due west of us with the stern at ~ 60' and the bow on the bottom at about 90'. With the DM who has been to the wreck many times, about 8 of us drop to 60' and proceed west. And we proceed west. Drop to the bottom for a bit. And we proceed west. Quite nice kelp forest and poor vis of ~20' is all we encounter. On the way back we swim thru a great school of Blacksmith. Flashing silver from here to forever. Makes one realize that the kaleidoscope of life really is in three dimensions. Back on the boat the DM says there was never much kelp around the Valiant in the past. The Capt. wanders by and says that the Harbormaster is a know-nothing; the Valiant isn't to the west but is to the northeast about 100 feet off the bow. After SI, Manny & I drop down the anchor chain and find the wreck about 10 kicks out. Lots of small life encrusted on the hull. Many many sea slugs. Spy half dozen fair sized lobsters up inside the bow. Absolutely monster Sheepshead toodling around the deck, musta been 3-4' long.

After lunch we make our way to Long Point about 6 miles west of Avalon. Mike and I dive thru marvelous kelp. Nothing like the diaphanous green that surrounds one in the midst of kelp with flashes of sun as the fronds wave forth and back. More lobsters. Blue banded gobies. A soccer ball sized sea hare. We follow the curve of the shore out and strike back to the boat thru deep open water at about 30'. Encounter an endless school of anchovy. How do they all move as one?

In summary, I am glad I did the shark dive, but not sure I like the idea of chumming. In the future my shark encounters will be of the purely accidental kind. That issue aside, I have no hesitation about recommending the Aquatica. Attentive crew, friendly, and safety conscious without being overbearing. They have a trip to the sea lion rookery at Santa Barbara Island that I may do when the water warms up.

Dive details:
Saturday 18 Dec99
2:30pm 20min 25' 57F Avalon Bank
3:30pm 26min 25' 57F Avalon Bank
6:30pm 35min 43' 57F Hen Rock
Sunday 19 Dec99
8:40am 30min 98' 55F Avalon
11am 30min 93' 57F Valiant wreck - Avalon
2pm 40min 43' 57F Long Point


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