For 20 minutes I waited inside the shark cage, staring until my eyes felt dusty, trying to catch any movement in the void surrounding me. I could see barely 30 feet through the seawater in which I was suspended, and my face mask, limited my angle of vision. No matter how I turned my head, there remained a world of water behind and above and below from which a great white shark might come without notice.
For sure, great white sharks were somewhere in the murk beyond the dim limits of my eyes. While I could not see them, I knew that the sharks, blessed with acute senses, were aware that Peter Gimbel and I were hanging there in separate cages, waiting for them to come our way. Safely caged as we were, Peter and I might not interest such witless and independent creatures, but hopefully the chum line of fish flesh and guts put out by our support boat Saori would induce even the most indifferent shark to follow its nose up the bloody trail to us.
Now and again during the wait I turned my head toward Peter and was comforted each time to find him, camera in hand, still inside his cage. Peter and other divers of our party had discussed the possibility of swimming out of the cage among great whites, as they had done to photograph other man-eaters. Knowing that Peter has a penchant for that kind of risk taking, I felt an uneasy concern that our enterprise might end in grief.
A hindquarter of beef, a bait big enough to tempt any shark, hung in the water between Peter's cage and mine. There was no hook in this huge bait. We had not come to catch a great white shark. We had traveled 40,000 miles in a six-month search to this meeting off South Australia, hoping merely to see and photograph the beast.
For years Peter Gimbel had been pointing to this encounter—engineering cages, developing underwater cameras and sound systems, studying sharks, photographing them, and finally bringing together the people and the Hollywood money to make the expedition possible. There is danger for a man when he closes in on a long-sought goal—a chance that in a last plunge to succeed he may lose too much.
Four great white sharks had come in during the day and attacked the baits we had put out. One of the sharks was such a monster that we speculated about its size. Clearly it was longer than our 14-foot dinghy, perhaps three feet longer. Its girth exceeded nine feet, and it weighed a ton or more. There are larger sharks, true. Basking and whale sharks are bigger, but they are cows of the sea, feeding on plankton and small creatures. The great white is a super carnivore, a scavenger and killer that has been involved in more confirmed attacks on men and boats than any other species. By virtue of its strength, speed, size and armament it rates without doubt as the world's most competent, cold-blooded hunter—the ultimate predator.
It is said that in any fair contest sharks are no match for porpoises. Generally speaking, this may be true but, to judge by what has been found in the stomachs of great white sharks, porpoises as well as other sea mammals like seals are simply part of the diet.
An immature, 10-foot great white is adept at eating 40-pound turtles, shell and all, and has mouth enough to bite a man in half. A 15-footer caught off Florida was found to contain two whole sandbar sharks more than six feet long. In 1959 Gerald Lehrer, a California diver shellfishing in La Jolla cove, saw his friend Robert Pamperin, dimly in a cloud of blood, protruding from the mouth of a great white. Before Lehrer could act, the shark was gone. In July of 1916 one rogue of the species raided the New Jersey coast, killing four bathers and badly mauling another. When finally caught near Sandy Hook, it still had parts of at least one victim in its stomach. The great white killer of the Jersey coast was only 8� feet long—a runt of the species, a mere child.
The great white is an erratic traveler the world around. It often shows up where it is not welcome, but if you want to find it, as we did, usually it is somewhere else.
For six months we had been making an unscripted documentary film about our diving adventures in the Indian Ocean. The thread tying the episodes together both in film and in fact turned out to be our continuing effort to find and photograph the great white. We had looked for it in promising areas from South Africa eastward to Ceylon. We had dived in the Seychelles and Comoro Islands, and off Madagascar and Mozambique. On Europa, a flyspeck between Madagascar and the African coast, we had dined with natives on barbecued goat; in Ceylon we had lain on hot sand at four a.m. while devil dancers evoked memories of man's ancient evils and fears. We had hitched rides on large green turtles; we had wandered over the tops of sea mounts rising from the abyss to within yards of the surface and had explored coral bastions such as scuba divers love but seldom ever see. In shallows, along drop-offs, and in open water, we had seen many sharks—perhaps a dozen species—but never a great white.