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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After about 15 minutes of it, when I finished a shot and looked around, all in an instant my world had changed: I was quite alone. There was no cage, there were no sharks—only a spherical void of blue-green haze, at the center of which I hung motionless, gathering fear. Mundus' warning resonated in my head over a high-pitched ringing: "Whenever a great white shows up the blues clear out." The middle ground grew suddenly dark. This must be the White Death, so huge he eclipses the light from the surface. Then shafts of sunlight, held captive for a moment by a cloud, reappeared, filling the sea with light. A sunbeam danced for just a wink on a panel gauge, and the reflection caught my eye. The cage was about 70 feet away and slightly above me. I swam straight to it and, opening the door, stood there on the sill feeling weak and wrung. My friends grinned, and behind their face masks their eyes stared brightly at me.

As I waited, recovering my poise, a shape appeared in the haze, moving at the limit of visibility. Its swimming action was not that of a great blue. It had no sinuosity. The amplitude of the tail stroke was short but implied great power, as if the spine of the fish were a rod of tempered steel. When it angled in toward the cage it became clearly recognizable as a mako, the cousin of the great white. My apprehension disappeared at the prospect of getting some footage of this swift, snaggletoothed species that enjoys such a celebrated reputation among anglers. As I pushed off from the sill, the mako accelerated violently, went into an arcing turn, banked fully onto its left side to maintain stability and dove steeply into the haze, traveling at a speed that left me wonder-struck. I can still see its wild flight, body bowed into the turn like a leaf of a carriage spring, as if the film I never shot were being projected before my eyes.

On the last day of the July filming period a tiger shark came into the slick. It was a young one—not more than seven feet—still bearing the dark, blotchy coloration typical of immature specimens. The blues did not retire when the tiger arrived, but neither did they swim close to it, as they often do among themselves. We have often seen the great blues keeping such close company that they run into each other. Twice we saw a pair actually bump nose to nose, producing a comic reaction of mutual alarm and panicky retreat.

The tiger shark cruised around the cage for about half an hour, and at first I cautiously stayed inside to give myself the chance to make an evaluation free of the distorting effect of being under tension. The shark made several close passes without appreciably changing his course or pace. There were no signs of excitement or aggression, although the tiger has a bad record—a long list of documented attacks on man. After a few minutes I left the cage, to the relief of Slater and De Camp, who were jammed up against the bars with three of us inside, and swam out to film the new shark. During the remainder of the summer I never again entered the cage I had taken such pains to perfect. But it was always nearby, a refuge and a comfort.

After our brief sortie in July our techniques seemed refined enough to justify an intensive, 10-day shooting schedule in late August. Photographer Bob Young joined us so that, with two cameramen, we would be able to get the shots that were at the top of my list: sharks and men in confrontation.

On our first day out, there was not enough wind to push the boat along and leave a long trail of chum behind. Consequently, we did not raise many sharks, and that was perhaps just as well, since it gave Bob Young a chance to get used to the cage. On some of the rough-and-tumble days that followed, Young actually preferred the cage to the deck of the Cricket. Although he served in the Navy in World War II, Young's stomach has never become used to the rolling life.

At the start of each diving day Captain Mundus always performed a little ritual. While we were suiting up for the dive, Mundus would fetch a lever-action Winchester from below, check its action and set it on the deck just outside the cockpit coaming. With this weapon he would lay down a covering fire when anyone was near the surface of the water outside the cage. On an active day he would fire more than a dozen rounds while Young and De Camp were going to and from the cage or while I was waiting outside it for the descent to start. If a shark approached a diver—and many did—Frank would turn it with a bullet a few inches in front of its snout.

Whenever we returned to the surface we found the same sight: Mundus standing at the very tip of the harpooning pulpit, his face in deep shadow beneath the brim of a faded safari hat, his legs and hips in constant easy motion to balance him through the looping arcs of his insane perch, his Winchester held high across his chest. He would lay down his covering fire for us until Phil Clarkson had steered the boat alongside the cage. Then he would work his way aft, always leaving himself an unobstructed shot into the water anywhere around us. Whenever the rifle cracked we would be certain of seeing, near where the bullet struck, a shark's snout turning away. The bubbles marking the impact were always close to the shark's head and always between it and the nearest diver, never on the outside, where it might turn the shark toward the diver. Once, when a big animal—as Mundus often referred to them—was moving in on my head faster than usual, I extended my arm suddenly to deflect the snout and a round tore into the water so near my hand that I was sure it had passed between my fingers. Alarmed and with the sudden thought that the action might be getting too hot for Mundus to handle, I glanced up at him standing in the cockpit. His dark, sun-narrowed eyes were darting over the surface with the swift precision of a robin pecking at a nest of grubs. The stock of his Winchester seemed barely to reach his shoulder before the shot exploded from the muzzle. He sometimes held a shot, braking the swing of the stock in mid-arc, but even these movements were full of sureness, totally free of hesitation or doubt.

Mundus' bullets plunking close by never really bothered me. He is a brilliant snap shot and a natural pointer—the sights have been removed from most of his rifles. To me the fear of being bitten by a shark always outweighed that of being perforated by Mundus.

As a safety measure below the surface, where Mundus' sharp eye could do us no good, we carried two "powerheads," one inside the cage and one held to my wrist with a loop. These are 18-inch pipes with shotgun chambers mounted at one end, which are discharged by driving the forward end of the chamber against anything, such as the head of a great blue shark. With such protective devices to back us up and a good deal of experience among the sharks, by August our operation had reached peak efficiency. Things that had required painstaking effort early in the summer seemed routine and easy now. With our greater proficiency the intense concentration of the experimental days vanished. Life in the cage and outside it became more relaxed. The result at first was an occasional trivial act of carelessness. Later on, in our laxity, we occasionally did things that verged on stupidity. Once, while we were aboard the Cricket changing air tanks and reloading cameras, we left the side door of the cage open. When we were ready to return to the water we found that an eight-foot blue shark, lured by the container oozing chum, had taken over the cage. What with a couple of people jabbing at him with poles, the shark got excited and, unable to find the door, rushed the bars. After some wild thrashing, it squeezed its way out, leaving the two bars between which it passed slightly bowed and brightly polished by its sandpaperlike hide.

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