An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.
-- John Steinbeck
The Log from the Sea of Cortez
The killing took place at dawn, and as usual it was a decapitation, accomplished by a single vicious swipe. Blood geysered into the air and created a vivid slick that stood out on the water like the work of a violent abstract painter. Five hundred yards away, outside a lighthouse on the highest peak of Southeast Farallon Island, a man watched through a telescope. First he noticed the frenzy of gulls, and then he saw the blood. Grabbing his radio, he turned and began to run.
His transmission jolted awake the four other people on the island: "We've got an attack off Sugarloaf, big one, lotta blood." The house at the bottom of the hill echoed with the sounds of biologist Peter Pyle hurrying down the stairs, pulling on his knee-high rubber boots and slamming the old door behind him as he sprinted to the boat launch.
Peter and his colleague Scot Anderson, the voice on the radio, jumped into their 17-foot Boston Whaler. The boat, which rested on a bed of rubber tires beside a cliff, was attached to a crane that now lifted it into the air, swung it over the lip and lowered it 30 feet into the massive autumn swells of the Pacific. The Whaler rose and fell into troughs big enough to swallow it. Peter started the engine and powered 200 yards toward the birds, where the object of their attention floated in a cloud of blood: a quarter-ton elephant seal missing its head. The odor was dense and oily--rancid Crisco mixed with seawater. "Oh, yeah," Peter said. "That's the smell of a shark attack."
The two men knew that below them a great white was orbiting and would soon be returning for its breakfast. It might be Betty or Mama or the Cadillac, one of the huge females that patrolled the east side of the island. These girls, all of them more than 17 feet long, were known as the Sisterhood. Or it might be a "smaller" male (13 or 14 feet), such as Spotty or T-Nose or the sneaky Cal Ripfin. These sharks were called the Rat Pack. At this time of year there were scores of great whites swimming close to the shore of Southeast Farallon as hapless seals were swept off the island at high tide and into the danger zone.
In any given year more than a thousand people will be injured by toilet bowl cleaning products or killed by cattle. Fewer than a dozen will be attacked by a great white shark. In this neighborhood, however, those odds do not count. At the Farallon Islands during September, October and November, your chances of meeting a great white face-to-face are better than 50-50, should you be crazy enough or unlucky enough to end up in the water.
Peter and Scot stood at the stern holding poles with video cameras on the end. There were several beats of the absolute silence you rarely got in life, eerie moments when time seemed to stop and even the birds were quiet. Then, 50 yards away, the ocean swirled into a boil.