High Adventure at the High Spot ? Chance Encounter with a Great White Shark

My wife doesn’t want me to dive anymore just because I had the good(?) fortune of bumping into a creature with the capacity to devour me. I then made the mistake of telling her the story. I should learn to keep my mouth shut.

I had been invited by my dive buddies Rick and Rich to accompany them on Rick’s boat to Catalina for a Labor Day dive. We left Huntington Harbor early September 4th and made a fast run to the Isthmus. They wanted to scout areas in advance for lobster season and asked me what a good site would be. One of my favorite dives is the “high-spot” which is situated in the channel between Bird Rock and Ship Rock. The pinnacle tops at 55 feet and meanders to a short drop-off at 90 feet. Sand channels with low reef structure are at 110 feet to 125 feet. The reef consists of boulders and overhangs covered in bull kelp with wide overlapping fronds. I have spent many happy hours there pulling aside the ground-layer of kelp hunting lobster.

We descended through the warm September water directly on top of the pinnacle. Visibility was a good 50 feet. At 25 feet we passed a thermocline. Icy water hit us right in the neoprene beaver tail. For 10 minutes we drifted over the fertile lobster grounds drooling over the twitching mass of antennae. Mid-water was filled with Blacksmith fish and thousands of schooling bait fish. At 65 feet, two California sea lions joined me and performed their ballet, which makes one feel completely ungraceful. All was good.

Rich was eyeballing an eight pound lobster in a hole at 80 feet. Knowing Rich, he was trying to figure out a way to get enough air to stay for another month until the season opened. I left him to his fantasy and swam down to the 90-foot drop-off. The water took on a greenish hue and visibility diminished. The sea became appreciably colder. Still, life abounded with reef activity everywhere.

Suddenly, something was wrong. The sea lions disappeared along with the fish that had previously clouded the water column. The whole reef just shut down like a busy apartment complex when the landlord shows up to collect rent. I felt brief pressure on my body, as though being pushed by a gentle wave through the surf. Yet, there was no current a second ago. Other than submarines, few things at 90 feet create pressure waves. This wasn’t man-made.

Heading toward the west end of the island, just feet from me, was the first real shark I had ever seen. In 32 years of diving, I’ve had the pleasure of encountering a variety of sharks: schooling hammerheads at Cocos Island; agitated Galapagos sharks off Ecuador; white-tip and black-tip reef sharks in a Red Sea feeding frenzy; and petting the puppy dog blue sharks in the Catalina Channel. This was a shark’s shark. I am fascinated by the creatures, but always had to go looking for them. This one found me. Kudos to the designer of my regulator. It stood up well to my rapid, sharp and deep inhalation that would have sucked the second-stage diaphragm of any normal regulator into my toes.

First, size. It was easily twice my body length, including fins; 12 to 16 feet. Second, identification. A large coal-black eye imperceptibly drifted my way. I stared hard into it, finding nothing but vacuous emptiness. There was ancient evil within that eye that made my skin crawl. Big triangular teeth extruding from its mouth didn’t help matters any. At first, I thought it was a humongous Mako shark because they have an ugly set of protruding dentures. I looked closer. A large chunk of flesh from its lower jaw was missing, exposing teeth. Not a Mako. Five gill slits, dull gray on top, and its light-colored belly was distended like it had recently eaten a big meal. No claspers trailing from its anal fin meant it was female. Maybe she wasn’t overfed, just pregnant? I looked at the top trailing-edge of her tall crescent-shaped caudal fin to confirm identification. Sure enough, there was the notched, triangular-shaped piece of shark flesh distinctive to Carcharodon carcharias.

The Great White Shark continued her journey into the greenish cold gloom. A very long ten seconds had elapsed since I encountered her. My next thought was simple. “I believe I’ve had enough diving for the day.” I swam up to Rich, pointed with urgency out to sea and made teeth-meshing signs with my fingers. Rich, who was still trying to extend his bottom time to the opening of lobster season, didn’t understand; however, I was later told that the size of my eyes communicated all was not normal in Catalina-ville. We found Rick hovering over the pinnacle. I repeated the gestures, convincing him to ascend. I debated a short safety stop, looked into the deteriorating visibility below, and figured that (1) I really hadn’t been down that long, and (2) U.S.C. had a recompression chamber a few hundred yards away. I opted for a quick egress. We probably weren’t in any danger, but I would prefer to view these creatures from the safety of a cage. They are incredibly scary looking, more so when they sneak up on you really close.

On Labor Day at Catalina Island, the landlord of the ocean appeared unexpectedly but did not attempt to collect the rent. Stop diving? Nope. An hour later we dived Blue Cavern Point. As for my wife’s concerns, I was able to get her mind off the fear of her husband being eaten by a Great White Shark by reminding her I was leaving for the Yucatan the following week to learn how to cave dive. I reasoned that such diving was done in fresh water and, to date, no sharks had been seen in a Mayan cenote. She just shook her head and looked at me funny.

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