SI Vault
James Lipscomb
August 23, 1971
At the end of a seemingly endless trail, divers catch up with the great white shark, the dread killer that often wears a wrinkled smile
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August 23, 1971

The Ultimate Predator

At the end of a seemingly endless trail, divers catch up with the great white shark, the dread killer that often wears a wrinkled smile

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Finally the quest for the big shark had brought us to the eastern extreme of the Indian Ocean under the South Australian coast. We were anchored at 35 degrees south latitude in an area of the Great Australian Bight where place-names reflect the awe of early explorers. If we did not find the great white here, off Cape Catastrophe in the lee of Dangerous Reef, well, it would be like climbing the first hard 24,000 feet of Everest to discover that its summit had disappeared.

I had joined the expedition partly because, as a sometime mountain climber, I am intrigued by the psychology of men who frisk with danger, and the leader of our expedition, 43-year-old Peter Gimbel, is motivated by what I have come to call mountain-climbing psychology. I quickly dismiss the trite definition, "death wish," for that is not what motivates Peter. In simplest terms it is the drive some men feel to test themselves in dangerous circumstances.

Peter has been tossing challenges at himself since the mid-'50s. For nine years he had worked successfully and intensely as a Wall Streeter. Then in 1957, realizing how little his career in the marketplace meant to him, he suddenly quit. Although he may deny it, danger attracts him. The Andrea Doria had hardly hit bottom in 1956 before Peter dived down 225 feet to photograph her. He parachuted into a wild part of the Peruvian Andes and spent 89 days and almost 50 of his 170 pounds walking out. Diving free and using a special diving chamber, he later went under Antarctic ice to photograph the life and hard times of the big Weddell seal.

It falls into a pattern. As a young man Peter boxed. He now enjoys skiing, but never in the easy, float-down-the-mountain style of the average weekender. Stowe is his mountain, and the Starr his trail. I skied with him once and have no plans to do so again. During a hellish day on the slopes with Peter one is not allowed time off to nurse minor injuries, or even to eat lunch.

As a diver and photographer, Peter naturally became interested in sharks and decided in 1964 to make a film that would portray them in the open sea with naturalness and intimacy. The protective cages available in that day were suspended from surface craft and were not much good. Whenever the boat to which it was connected plunged up and down in rough seas, the cage below responded erratically, and the diver in it ofttimes was knocked about like a Gulliver in Brobdingnag land.

Peter designed a cage with built-in buoyancy. By flooding and purging ballast tanks, the diver could make his cage rise, sink or hover. When the diver was busy, the cage could be put on automatic controls, whereby the pressure of the surrounding water would keep it at a prescribed depth. With his superior cage Peter made an excellent short film about the blue shark, a marauder and suspected killer that is common and very unpopular in the Atlantic off Long Island.

In the making of this film, Peter was soon bored photographing blue sharks from the protection of a cage. He swam out to take closeups, to get detail of the teeth and the wink of the catlike eye, but the best footage of his blue shark film was taken by another photographer when a pair of insolent blues made passes at Peter's legs. Peter maintains he was safe as long as he kept his camera between himself and their teeth. Perhaps so, but it occurs to me that sooner or later this theory might be chewed apart if two sharks came at him from opposite directions at the same time.

Predictably, Peter's interest shifted from the blue to the great white—the ultimate goal, certainly, for any shark photographer. Three other fine divers joined him in the quest: Stan Waterman, a wandering American diver and lecturer; and Ron and Valerie Taylor, an Australian couple who have won local and international honors both with spear gun and camera. The Taylors have diving friends who have been attacked and badly bitten by great whites, and Ron has developed a curious attraction-repulsion for the species.

Our pursuit of the great white began off Durban, South Africa, where we followed ships of the Union Whaling Company. When the whalers make a kill in a traveling gam of whales, they inflate the carcass with air to keep it afloat. After buoying the carcass with a radio beacon and a light, they go on their way, chasing the gam in hopes of another kill. At night the whalers retrace their steps, as it were, to pick up the dead whales and tow them to the factory ashore.

Before the whalers can get back to them, the floating carcasses often are attacked by sharks. We spent seven weeks tied alongside dead whales to photograph whatever happened. In that time hundreds of sharks—duskies, tigers, great blues and oceanic whitetips—came in to feed. We saw many sharks of good size, up to a thousand pounds, but never a great white.

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