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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My fear of seeing a great white off Montauk was entirely rational. Over the years Mundus, who usually fishes for sharks, has seen between five and 10 per season. He lands one or two most years. His largest, caught in 1964, measured 17� feet and weighed 4,500 pounds. Its head is handsomely mounted in a kind of interior cupola in a restaurant called Salivar's Dock at Montauk.

At Salivar's you can get a sturdy breakfast before dawn, and that is usually what we did before heading out on the Cricket. Sometimes—always alone—I would wander back to the bar and stare at that incredible head of the great white, thrusting—or so it seemed in the dim light—through the wall of the cupola, out of the gray-blue of the middle ground. There I could contemplate the reality of my nightmare with impunity.

Last summer unusual conditions existed in the Atlantic, and warm water was a good month late in arriving along the northeast coast of the U.S. (One day in late June, De Camp and I recorded a temperature of 39� F. in a layer of water only 40 feet below the surface.) The schedule of the sharks was drastically affected. The much smaller female blues, which usually clear out of the Montauk area by early June, were not replaced by the larger males until July.

At the end of July, for my free-swimming venture among the sharks, I was anxious to have another diver inside the cage with De Camp. When not making depth adjustments, De Camp often would be too busy taking still photographs to point out for me sharks swimming in from the rear. Ed Slater, an architect and good deepwater diver, volunteered to serve as traffic director.

The first day out was made for raising sharks: seas moderate and just enough breeze to give the Cricket a good drift and leave a long chum slick behind. We had several 11-foot great blues near the boat in a short time. The cage was launched, and just before I went over the side Captain Mundus said, "If you ever see the blues disappear, get inside that cage. I notice whenever a great white shows up, the blues clear out." A couple of big blues were right along the starboard side of the cockpit. I waited for a gap in the traffic and rolled over the gunwale. As the explosion of bubbles cleared I could see four or five big males moving easily through the slick and gulping down the chunks of whiting that the mate was tossing in with the chum.

No diver likes to stay too long at the surface among sharks. It is the zone where he is most helpless and they are most aggressive, conditioned, no doubt, by the fact that most live game found there is either in distress or an easy mark. De Camp and Slater entered the cage and took it down immediately, with me riding freight on the outside.

De Camp stopped the descent at about 30 feet. We drifted in the chum line that spread through the ocean—a slightly brownish tinge from which small particles of ground fish sank slowly into the hazy darkness below. In the cage we had several dead flatfish on strings to be used as teasers and a supply of chum in a perforated container. The sharks took notice right away of our attractive cargo; they left the vicinity of the Cricket and began circulating around us.

In this situation a sense of what is happening and what is going to happen is more practical than a headful of theories. What pays off is feel. By the time a shark has followed a trailing chum slick for a mile or more and reached its source, he is already in a certain mode of attack: he is feeding and looking for more. These blues were in precisely this state. They were keen but by no means in a feeding frenzy, or near it. When I left the cage to swim among them I felt that things were under control, but I was alert to the possibility of a change on short notice—and always at the option of the sharks. After a while I developed an ability to tell when a shark, seemingly on a desultory course, was going to turn toward me and continue straight in. At first it was agony keeping my eye against the viewfinder of the camera while the shark's head got bigger and bigger, because, with the loss of normal perspective through the optic, I couldn't tell exactly when to take protective measures. I soon realized that as long as the mouth did not change position in the field, the shark was on a collision course with the camera and must hit it before hitting me.

The sharks would often continue to advance until they bumped the lens, generously giving me exactly the kind of closeup footage I was after. If a shark rose slightly, it would pass just barely above my head, resulting in some astonishing shots of the long white bellies undulating past at a distance of one or two feet. But when they lowered their trajectories to come in under the camera, it was important to react. The reaction consisted of returning the bump from the shark's snout with whatever part of my body received the blow. The sharks always approached slowly and the contact was invariably gentle. I had the feeling these constant tactics were a form of test, that if no resistance were forthcoming the next move on their part would be a bite. I confess I never put my theory to trial by voluntarily failing to react. The experiment, if the hypothesis held true, could become self-liquidating, the investigator being destroyed in collecting the supporting data.

During those three days outside the cage among the blues, every so often a cold tide of dread would flow through me as the specter of the great white arose in my mind. Then I would swim over to the cage door and hang there like a ninny while Mike and Ed stared at me curiously. On my second day outside the cage the action was excellent—there were, by haphazard count, a dozen blues, browns and duskies ranging from eight to 11 feet in length. I became completely absorbed in the photographic job and was constantly lured from one kind of shot to another by the overabundance of subjects. There were such rich pickings that I began using the camera erratically, frustrated by knowing that I was not making the most of the opportunity. As far as my security was concerned, however, I was filled with a sense of well-being. Slater was pointing out the traffic approaching from my blind spots like a bobby at Piccadilly Circus at midday.

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