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Weekend Escape

Getting a Jolt Out of Jaws

Snorkelers go eye-to-eye with sharks in the waters off San Pedro's coast.

July 29, 2001|JENNY HONTZ | Jenny Hontz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — After five years in Hollywood, working in and writing about the entertainment industry, I thought I'd been swimming with sharks long enough. But then I saw the real thing: a gorgeous 9-foot blue shark, skin glistening, fin stabbing the water's surface, as it circled a bucket of bloody mackerel dangling off the back of our boat.

I snatched my mask and snorkel and dove into the shark cage for a closer look. The sleek fish swam away before I could see much of it. But the big blue returned every 30 to 45 minutes for the rest of the afternoon, each visit prompting the 20 onlookers onboard to scream "Shark!"

Our leaders were marine biologist John Manley and oceanographer Don Newman, college instructors who started Team Shark Inc. last year as an educational excursion. The idea is to allow people who don't scuba dive to observe sharks in their natural habitat.

The 9-foot blue was the largest of six sharks to check out the chum we dumped from the 80-foot Great Escape between San Pedro and Santa Catalina Island. Before the day was through, we also saw dolphins and a sea lion, and we brought one unlucky lady, a 31/4-foot blue shark, aboard for tagging.

The adventure began at the 22nd Street landing in San Pedro, Los Angeles' port. At 8:30 on a warm Friday morning, Manley and Newman hauled on deck their fluorescent yellow plastic cage, which looked like a baby's playpen, albeit a large one that floats in water. "We're gonna get in that?" I asked Manley. "Looks a little flimsy."

Manley calmly explained to me and my friend Hank that the plastic was rock solid and far safer than the aluminum cages you see during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Metal emits electrical impulses that lure sharks to bite, which is great for TV cameras but not so good for novice snorkelers.

Satisfied that these guys knew what they were doing, we settled into the galley for scrambled eggs, while Manley and Newman dispensed some fun shark facts. (Breakfast and lunch, as well as wetsuits and snorkel gear, are included in the price of the dive.) I learned, for instance, that sharks were once thought to be poisonous to eat (not true) because they urinate through their skin (true).

We set out to sea at 10:30 a.m., and our first task was not for the queasy. A group of passengers dubbed "chum-masters" took turns chopping frozen mackerel into shark bait, churning the guts with a knife. Somehow none of this smelled nearly as awful as I expected, even though we were forbidden to wash our hands with soap, a shark repellent.

After laying down a mile-long carpet of oily chum, we cut the engines and drifted. Newman tossed a bucket of fish in the water, and within seconds, a 6-foot mako shark and several smaller ones showed up to inspect the goods.

Closely related to great whites, makos are strong, smart and unpredictable. On the dive trip just before ours, Manley said, he had pulled a group of snorkelers out of the water because an 8-foot mako darted erratically toward the cage and got aggressive with a sea lion.

Danger or no danger, I was so thrilled to see these sharks up close that my fear melted. I couldn't squeeze into my wetsuit fast enough, and I rushed into the cage. Unfortunately, I had an uncanny ability to scare the sharks away, which I suppose I should consider a blessing. The makos took off and never returned.

The big blue shark soon arrived to take their place, but you had to be in the cage at the right time or you'd miss it. Even with a wetsuit, I could stand the frigid water for only 10 to 15 minutes at a time, so I only saw the shark from the boat's deck. But Blake, a 10-year-old die-hard shark fan who seemed oblivious to the water temperature, spent the entire afternoon in the cage and was lucky enough to see the blue cruise beneath him. "I saw his membrane close over his eye," Blake said.

Still, there was no shark feeding frenzy, and I could tell that a few passengers were hoping for a greater display of Jaws-like ferocity. After breaking for a hearty lunch of beef stew, we finally got the close encounter we'd hoped for.

Manley, a barrel-chested guy's guy, usually catches small blue sharks with his bare hands. Waving a mackerel for bait, he grabs the biting shark behind the gills and flips it upside down, inducing a catatonic state. On our trip, the 9-foot blue scared away most of the smaller sharks, so Manley had to bait his fishing pole to snag a baby blue for tagging.

The tension rose as Manley reeled in the shark and scrambled to get it safely on board. We crowded around as Newman held the tail and Manley tried to remove the hook. Forced to cut the line, he reassured us the shark's stomach would scar right over it. (After the trip I called the Long Beach aquarium, which confirmed the animal would suffer no harm.)

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