SI Vault
Peter R. Gimbel
August 29, 1966
During a moviemaking project that became an undersea adventure, the author swam daily among huge sharks in the Atlantic off Montauk Point, feeding them, photographing them, fending them off with his hands and feet. And ever in the background lurked the specter of the man-killer, the great white shark
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August 29, 1966


During a moviemaking project that became an undersea adventure, the author swam daily among huge sharks in the Atlantic off Montauk Point, feeding them, photographing them, fending them off with his hands and feet. And ever in the background lurked the specter of the man-killer, the great white shark

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At about 4 a.m. on the day of the test, as my wife Ginny and I were towing the cage to Quarry Lake on a trailer, suddenly I saw a ghostly shape rear up behind the car. Somehow the cage had broken loose. In the next instant the highway behind us exploded in a sheet of sparks as the cage skidded along it, torn and burned apart by the impact and the friction. A motorist a quarter of a mile behind saw the cage barely in time to swerve and miss it. I hauled it off the pavement, and the next driver stopped and helped me load it back on the trailer. I drove 15 miles back to R & Z Precision Industries in Mount Vernon, N. Y., where the cage had been fabricated. By noon Arnie Ziegler of R & Z and I had patched it up with wire, rope, tape—anything. It looked a mess, but it was functional.

The shoreline of Quarry Lake drops off at a 75� angle from a rim about a foot above water level. At 4 p.m. the cage was launched, after having been christened Blowfish by my wife, a ceremony that took half a dozen blows, the bottle being rather better than the champagne. As soon as the ceremonies were over, Carleton Ray and I got inside the cage for the first descent. The cage hesitated for a moment at the surface, then majestically began to sink. It kept right on sinking, although Carleton Ray and I frantically wound the operating controls of both tanks to "Full Rise." The electrical system was working beautifully. I could hear the crisp little clicks as the solenoids opened and closed, blowing air into the tanks. Still we sank. Although there was a line tied to the cage, the crew up top, confident as I of the efficacy of the Blowfish, never considered dishonoring the maiden descent by hauling in. As the cage picked up velocity it tended to tip more and more each time the lower frame scraped the sloping quarry wall. Finally it tipped into a head-down attitude. In this position the two buoyancy tanks, with openings on their undersurfaces, dumped the little air left in them, and we began to descend in earnest, with the tanks now acting as sinkers. Carleton had the good sense to exit, but I remained inside, working at the controls.

The cage landed on the bottom at 85 feet. It lay on its side on the only door that worked, the top gate having been wired shut in the binding operation that now held the half-smashed vehicle together. The line connected to the cage, as it turned out, was a little too short and did not even reach the surface. Phil Clarkson, chief of the topside crew, could barely retain the end of it by reaching underwater, let alone get two or three others on it to haul me up. Finally, while Carleton lifted from the outside, I blasted the last of our air into the tanks by a manual control and we began to rise. The cage was hauled up against the shore and secured just as it began to go under again. I heaved myself out of the water. A nonplussed group was standing quite still on the rim of the quarry, eying me and obviously waiting to be told that what seemed to have happened really hadn't.

That evening Bogdanowicz and I sat around drinking and talking. I was disconsolate; Bogdanowicz was unfazed. He pointed out two things: the heart of the system, the electrical circuit, worked, and the entire buoyancy system had to work, or else that very afternoon we had disproved Archimedes' Principle (an object displaces a volume of water equal to its weight).

In the next three weeks we modified the cage to make it fail-safe by adding four sealed tanks with enough lift to float the cage even with the controllable chamber totally flooded. Only by taking on board 50 pounds of disposable lead ballast could the cage be made to sink at all. We replaced the original two buoyancy tanks with a single one and further reduced the number of controls to one. A terror-stricken idiot wearing snow mittens could operate the cage now, we hoped.

Three weeks after the Quarry Lake disaster Mike de Camp, a schoolteacher who pokes around in deepwater wrecks for love and occasional profit, helped me try the modified cage in open ocean. We first test-dove it to 50 feet while tethered to Captain Frank Mundus' Cricket. Then, over Mundus' protests, we descended again and, altogether free of the surface, we drifted through the middle ground with the current. (The middle ground has no formal limits according to depth; it is that area where neither the surface nor the bottom is visible, only a diffused light source above, darkness below and all around a dismal gray.) The cage was stable, it responded quickly to the controls and it was easy to operate. We had our film studio in the sea.

Accompanied either by Mike de Camp or Carleton Ray, I made eight trips among the sharks in the next month. Long shots and medium shots of the sharks feeding in the chum slick were easy to get from the cage, but the extreme closeups that I felt were also necessary for a good film were difficult. The sharks came close enough. Indeed, the great blues sometimes tried to push between the bars to get at our supply of chum and fish. The smaller blues—the six-footers—could enter as far as their pectoral fins and had to be shoved out. Those antics were easy to photograph, but they were just that—antics. What I wanted was unobstructed closeups showing the fascinating details of these animals swimming free: the occasional excited trembling of the lower jaw, with the mouth slightly open, or the eye oscillating around its vertical axis so as to remain fixed on an object as the head swings with the sinuous swimming motion. I wanted to film the sharks passing so close to the lens that their eyes would seem as big as pumpkins on the screen and the ampullae of Lorenzini (porelike openings that cover the snout and are possibly integrated in the shark's sensory system) would look like holes in a Chinese checker board.

Just as important to the movie were shots of men and sharks together, so that the viewer would get a sense of the size of the animals. This might have been achieved from a second cage, but the extreme closeups could not. Only a cameraman swimming free among the sharks could provide these. Until well along in June I never seriously considered this bolder approach.

Having gained a sense of familiarity with the ways of the great blue sharks, I decided that on the next trip to Montauk, on three successive days in late July, I would swim free among them and concentrate on shooting closeups. Meanwhile I had ample time to change a few details on the cage, study the film that had been shot earlier and develop a recurrent nightmare.

This nightmare, which also popped up occasionally as an inner vision by day, always followed the same pattern. I was swimming among the great blues in the middle ground. Abruptly, they disappeared beyond my perimeter of vision leaving only the gray-blue blankness of the open ocean. I spun round and round, trying to look in all directions at once, sensing that something enormous was just out of sight. A form appeared, huge beyond imagining. It came rapidly toward me and materialized as the great white shark, the man-eater. It bore straight in with overwhelming speed, and as the jaws opened to swallow me I would awaken and begin thinking of what desperate measures to take if the nightmare—or daymare—came true. I could never come up with more than two: feed the monster the camera, or spin at the last second to present the big double tank block on my back. In either case the rationale was that the shark would find the first course of his meal so hard on the gums that he would go off after more tender prey, spitting out a cascade of two-inch teeth as he departed.

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