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Weekend Escape: Catalina

Shark Safari

Snorkeling and screaming --safely behind bars

June 07, 1998|SHARON BOORSTIN

AVALON — I understand and acknowledge that sharks are wild animals and are unpredictable and that if I should be bitten, attacked or harmed in any way I could suffer severe injuries including, but not limited to punctures, abrasions, lacerations, dismemberment, emotional distress and even death . . . .

Signing a waiver that included this passage seemed an ominous start to a weekend. But Hydrosphere, the organizer of our two-day "shark safari," required it for obvious reasons: While aboard their 64-foot-long converted fishing boat, my teenage son, Adam, his friends, Walshe Birney, Denis Sokol and Paul Friedman, along with Paul's father, Michael Friedman, and I, would be swimming in a cage mere inches from fully functional sharks.

In addition to offering various overnight and day trips to a public fascinated with sharks, Hydrosphere is part of a serious scientific consortium, the Southern California Marine Institute. The organization claims that both its shark cage, and mission, are unique--the cage being designed for snorkelers rather than divers (thus they accept supervised children as young as five), their expeditions educational and not just thrill-seeking.

Yet as we put pen to paper, Michael and I couldn't help having second thoughts. (I'd already faced the fact that the trip would be less than comfortable: Sleeping quarters on the boat consist of three-tiered bunk beds below deck; the "heads" are two cubicles the size of phone booths, each with a toilet, sink and shower.) The boys, however, were humming the "DUM-dum-DUM-dum-DUM-dum" theme from the movie "Jaws"--clearly up for an adventure.

At dusk on a balmy evening, the Pacific Explorer chugged out of San Pedro Harbor with 14 passengers and six crew members on board. Rick Lawson, our expedition leader, a scuba instructor with the buzz-cut and muscular build of a Marine sergeant, announced the night's plan: Drop anchor seven miles off Catalina Island in the Avalon Banks, and set up the shark tank for a "shark encounter."

But as we left the breakwater behind, we hit four- and five-foot swells. So I was grateful when Rick announced that the sea was too rough for the night shark dive. We headed for shelter on the leeward side of Catalina Island. I hoisted myself up into the top bunk, and slept peacefully in calm seas.

Saturday morning, Manny Koch, Hydrosphere's office manager-cum-cook, managed to whip up pancakes, sausage and hash-brown potatoes for 20 in the boat's tiny galley. We cruised to five miles off the southwest tip of Catalina, where crew-member Morgan Ball began the messy task of chopping up skipjack and mackerel and dumping it over the railing, along with chum (ground-up fish guts), to attract the sharks. Other members of the crew tethered the 16-foot-long open-topped shark cage--an aluminum-pipe frame covered with wire mesh, supported by eight plastic floats--to the starboard side of the boat. Nancy Lawson, the expedition educator, outfitted Adam and his friends with wetsuits. (Hydrosphere has plenty of kid-sized wetsuits, used during their school-class expeditions; adults must bring their own.)

As the morning wore on, Morgan presented a slide-lecture about sharks; and Manny baked a batch of chocolate-chip cookies.

At 10:45 a.m., I was nodding off on deck when I heard someone shout: "Shark!" Sure enough, I spotted the silvery figure right out of a nightmare, knifing through the water. Rick identified it as a four-foot-long blue shark. Everyone grabbed for their snorkel gear, and the boys clambered down the ladder into the shark cage. I heard a chorus of snorkel-muffled screams as they peered through their scuba masks at the creature just below the cage. A second blue shark moved in, and then a third.

*

Next, we anchored off Sandy Point, near the Isthmus of Catalina Island. Several of the passengers had brought scuba equipment, and went diving. Michael and I led the boys on a snorkeling expedition. The 69-degree water was so clear that we had 20-foot visibility. We made our way through giant kelp forests, chasing schools of shimmering sardines and spotting pumpkin-orange garibaldi.

At dusk, the boat moved to Bird Rock, where we enjoyed delicious chicken fajitas for dinner. I couldn't face the prospect of struggling back into my soggy wetsuit to go night snorkeling. The boys, however, tittered with a combination of excitement and dread as Rick attached colored lightsticks to their snorkels so we could spot them from the boat. After much discussion as to who would be the first to leap, they counted to three and jumped together into the cold, black water. They returned with reports of spotting huge lobsters and schools of mysterious-looking fish--and of fighting the terror that a shark might loom suddenly out of the shadowy depths.

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