Cruising the waters off the coast of central California in a 17-foot Boston Whaler, Ken Goldman scans the horizon for signs of blood. Suddenly his radio crackles: "Shark attack off Saddle Rock!" The call originates from a lookout high atop Lighthouse Hill on Southeast Farallon Island, so Goldman heads for a spot a few hundred yards offshore. He cuts the engine and slowly pulls alongside the crimson slick. Floating in the middle is the mangled carcass of an elephant seal. Amid a tornado of swirling and dipping gulls, Goldman waits. Another great white has made a kill at the Farallon Islands, a craggy grouping of islets 30 miles west of San Francisco.
As an aquatic biologist at San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, Goldman, 32, has spent many hours among the sharks of the Farallones. Since 1991 he has been hiding transmitters in 10-pound pieces of seal blubber, then tossing the bugged snacks overboard during shark feedings. This practice has allowed Goldman to study the behavior and physiology of several great whites, which has led to some interesting findings about the stalking practices of the fearsome ocean predators.
"No one has spent more time and energy learning about the movements of the great white than Ken has," says John McCosker, 49, an authority on great whites who was Goldman's mentor at the Steinhart. "This is not basic research. What he is doing will have considerable application for anyone from Mexico to Canada who goes into the water. He just better not fall overboard before he publishes."
Goldman's quarry this day is a 14-footer. About five minutes after Goldman and Scot Anderson, a naturalist, arrive at the scene of the kill, the shark returns. What is surprising to those unfamiliar with the 2,000-pound beast is how mellow he is—not at all like the boat-devouring shark that haunts people's imaginations once they see Jaws, which was released 20 years ago this summer.
Every minute or so the surface ripples. The shark takes a leisurely bite of the elephant seal, dives and circles back. Bite by bite over the next half hour the predator eats the 200-pound pinniped. The scene is peaceful and rhythmic. Of the shark, the irrepressibly upbeat Goldman—a dead ringer beneath his long frizzy hair and beard for the actor Daniel Stern—says, "He's almost gentle."
But this is not to underestimate the brute force of a great white. In December, James Robinson, a sea-urchin diver, was killed by a great white off San Miguel Island, near Santa Barbara. Robinson, 42, was doing what he had done hundreds of times before—treading water as he took off his diving gear and placed it aboard his boat. In an instant, though, the activity turned from the familiar to the fatal as the shark shot up from the depths for a swift kill. Two crew members stowing equipment on the boat whirled around when they heard Robinson scream. "A great white bit me," is all Robinson, his right leg nearly severed, could mutter once they pulled him onto the deck. He died a few hours later.
"A bit of bad luck," says McCosker, sitting with Goldman outside his office in the Steinhart's department of ichthyology. McCosker isn't being glib or insensitive. Of the 80 confirmed great-white attacks along the West Coast since 1950, only eight have been fatal.
The low number of deaths from shark attacks has led to the popular misconception that great whites don't like the taste of humans. Not true, says McCosker, who recently retired as the director of the Steinhart (where he spent 22 years) to return to research. "Great whites have every intention of eating you," he says, "but because they prey on seals and sea lions, both of which can do a lot of damage with their huge claws, sharks will bite once and then wait for their prey to die. The last thing a shark wants to do is attempt to cat the thing while it's still alive, because a white shark whose vision is in any way compromised is a dead white shark." Most humans survive attacks because they are with a buddy who pulls them from the water before the shark returns.
With the aid of Goldman's research, McCosker hopes to devise a means of predicting the annual movements of great whites. "I would like to have such a clear model to follow that there's no reason to worry about white sharks any more than about getting hit by an asteroid," he says.
Such a forecasting paradigm would be especially significant to residents along the rocky coast of central California, where more shark attacks on humans have occurred than anywhere else in the world. The elephant seal—the shark's primary prey—has returned to the area with a vengeance after being hunted nearly to extinction. As the seals spread throughout their historic range, white sharks will follow, and more people will be mistaken for seals. Fortunately we're not nearly as filling, so there is no danger of humans becoming the great white's favorite food.