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Up Close on Purpose : Few Divers Knowingly Drop Into the Middle of a Shark Feeding Frenzy, Let Alone Stir One Up. : But for This Video Crew, That Was the Whole Idea

December 01, 1985|TIM CAHILL | Tim Cahill's "Jaguars Ripped My Flesh," a collection of his adventure stories from Rolling Stone, Outside and Islands magazines, will be published next year by Bantam Books

"This," Jack McKenney said, "is your shark club." It was a broom handle with a nail in one end and I was supposed to use it underwater, while scuba diving, to whap the menacing sharks we hoped to attract and thus convince them, McKenney explained, that we weren't to be considered appetizers. I said that a broom handle seemed somewhat fragile for the task at hand.

"Well," McKenney said reasonably, "you won't have to use it if you don't get out of the cage."

We were standing on the stern of a dive boat called the Atlantis, which was drifting in the channel between San Pedro Harbor and Catalina, near a place called 14 Mile Bank. The water was a glassy blue, under blue skies on a nearly windless day. Half a mile in the distance, dense clouds of sea birds were whirling and diving above several city blocks' worth of ocean that seemed to be in full boil. Tony Aquino, the captain of the Atlantis, figured that bait fish were being driven to the surface by marauding sharks. I was looking at a couple of acres or so of pure terror.

The shark cage sat on the deck, tied to a boom that would lower it 10 feet into the water. I had always supposed that such a cage would be constructed of heavy metal, with wrist-thick prison-type bars. The contraption in question, however, was constructed, for the most part, from wire, the kind used as bedsprings in the cots you find in mountain cabins.

"How many sharks will we get?" I asked McKenney.

"Hard to tell," he said. "I don't think we'll be skunked. If we're lucky, we could have as many as 20."

"Oh, boy," I said.

For a decade I've been diving and writing for various scuba magazines and have found myself in the water with dozens of sharks--from tiger sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, hammerheads off Central America, Caribbean nurse sharks, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks, carpet sharks, sand sharks and lemon sharks--but never intentionally. They simply appeared, unwanted, like ants at a picnic. The idea of purposely getting into the water with a dozen or so man-eaters seemed silly, suicidal, dumb as rocks.

Still, Jack McKenney had asked me to help make a documentary on shark diving, and McKenney knows what he's doing. It was he, doubling for Nick Nolte, who made a free ascent through that shark feeding frenzy in "The Deep." No longtime diver would pass up an opportunity to dive with him, just as no pilot would turn down an invitation to fly with Chuck Yeager.

We had been adrift for a little less than an hour and hadn't seen any sharks yet. We were chumming for them, sending out little invitations: Come to the feeding frenzy. From the 400 pounds of foot-long frozen mackerel that sat on the deck, McKenney and his son, John, had packaged 15 pounds into two plastic-mesh boxes designed to carry milk cartons. These were wired open end to open end and dropped over the side on a rope, so that the contraption was half in the water. The rocking of the boat macerated the defrosting fish, and I could see oil and blood and bits of mackerel floating away in a snaking line. A cruising shark that crossed the chum line would turn and follow it to the boat.

I was going through a final check of my dive gear when Aquino mentioned--rather cavalierly, I thought--that "we got one." It was a six-foot-long blue shark, and it had rolled over onto its back and was chewing, halfheartedly, on the milk boxes. It rolled again and one flat black eye looked up at the faces peering at it over the side of the boat. The shark turned again, like a jet fighter doing a barrel roll, and disappeared under the boat.

In the distance, about 100 yards off, I could see another fin, gliding along the path of chum toward the boat. Beyond it was a third, coming in our direction along the same meandering path. It was early in the morning, and the sun was low in the sky so that the water seemed cobalt blue. But the wake behind the shark fins was an odd emerald color that glittered on the surface of the glassy sea. There was a muffled thump as the first shark hit the chum box a second time.

Jack McKenney said, "Let's get the cage in the water and go diving."

Canadian-born Jack McKenney, who lives in Silver Lake, is a legend in the diving industry. A film maker, photographer and adventurer, he has filmed whale sharks and ridden manta rays in the Sea of Cortez; he has made more dives on the Andrea Doria than any other person. Hollywood has paid him to learn a lot about different kinds of sharks. In addition to being the stunt double in "The Deep," he did the stunt work for "Shark's Treasure" and filmed some of the underwater sequences in both movies.

McKenney, 47, and his 26-year-old son, John, were making this documentary as their first video production for the home market, which they hope to reach through advertising in scuba magazines. The production would show that a shark dive in the midst of a feeding frenzy can be "a safe and enjoyable" experience--when done properly.

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