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WET & WILD : Cage Lets You Fish for Adventure Among Sharks

February 25, 1993|DAVID HALDANE | David Haldane is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition.

My first impression was that the shark wasn't real.

Gliding effortlessly through the water, his sleek metallic body moved relentlessly toward us like a marauding submarine.

I experienced what I always do at such moments: a sudden awareness that it was real, followed by a sharp intake of breath and a quickening of the heartbeat.

This time, however, something solid separated me from sheer panic: a set of aluminum bars. For, breathing through hoses with two other divers, I was confined to a cage.

Welcome to shark diving, Southern California's latest underwater recreational craze.

"If you're a diver, this is the ultimate," says Greg Elliott of Fountain Valley, owner of a boat called the Golden Doubloon, aboard which, for $125, he will transport you to shark-infested waters. "People just fall in love with the sharks."

Elliott's boat, which is docked in San Pedro, departs at 4 a.m. with its bunks full of slumbering adventurers for a spot about five miles off Catalina Island called Avalon Banks.

Once there, crew members slop chum--consisting of beef blood and chopped mackerel--into the water until the sharks show up. Then, rotating in three-member teams, divers step into a nine-foot underwater aluminum cage at the stern of the boat from where, breathing through hoses connected to the surface, they take turns spending up to 20 minutes watching the show.

"This was brilliant!" Karl Wiggins, a 36-year-old traveler from Great Britain, enthused after seeing his first shark. "It was great. It was close enough to count the gills. I wanted to touch it!"

Some of the divers, in fact, actually did reach out and touch the animals as they passed within inches of the cage. "You can touch them as long as the teeth have gone by," Elliott said. "They can't back up."

In the 49 shark trips he has completed since beginning them early last year, there have been no casualties among the estimated 500 divers who have participated, he says. But there have been a couple of heart-stoppers.

Once, Elliott said, a nine-foot blue shark entered the cage through its open top, drove its snout between the bars at the bottom and spent two minutes thrashing about inside in the company of three divers.

"I thought that was it," the 52-year-old skipper recalls. "I expected to see huge gushes of blood come up at any moment."

Instead, he says, an enterprising--and remarkably cool--diver opened one of the barred windows in the cage,

pulled the shark up by its fins and guided it out.

Another time, Elliott says, a diver came up with a finger that he claimed had been bloodied by a shark. "I think he stuck his finger in the shark's mouth to get the cut," he says. "He was very proud of it. He'd squeeze it and squeeze it to make the blood flow, then his friends would take his picture."

The only mishap while I was on board occurred when the cage--the top of which is about two feet below the surface--inexplicably broke free of the boat and began floating away with its cargo of divers. Elliott and his boat hands quickly harnessed the thing, pulled it back toward the deck and retied it to the Golden Doubloon, where the divers, oblivious to the hazard, surfaced with a single complaint: "That was a little short, wasn't it? Why are you pulling us up?"

Most of the sharks that show up, Elliott says, are the relatively harmless blue type that frequent Southern California waters. Occasionally, he says, a mako will make the scene. They're close relatives of the great white and potentially dangerous, but those off California seldom attack humans.

And although great whites also inhabit these waters, experts say, they are rarely seen during shark dives and have never attacked off Catalina.

The most exciting moment for me came when one of the sharks, obviously curious, swooped in for a closer look, practically brushing against the cage and coming near enough for eye-to-eye contact.

It was then that I sensed the magnificence of these animals and their grace and beauty. My awe was shared by virtually every diver aboard.

"I stroked him twice!" said Wiggins, upon surfacing after his second descent. "It was brilliant. This was a day worth living!"

To which I added a hearty assent.

Greg Elliott's shark excursions are open to certified divers, or to non-certified divers accompanied by approved instructors. For boat schedules and reservations, call Golden Doubloon Charters at (714) 963-4378.

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