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Diver debunks sharks' bad reputation

'Shark Publicist' William Winram tags great whites for scientists and captures images of them that confound us. He wants to show that humans' natural fear of the so-called man-eater has been blown way out of proportion.

August 22, 2011|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Free-diver Pierre Frolla swims alongside a great white shark. His friend who took this photo, William Winram, calls himself a "Shark Publicist" who wants to show that humans' natural fear of the so-called man-eater has been blown way out of proportion.
Free-diver Pierre Frolla swims alongside a great white shark. His friend… (Lauren Swartzbaugh / satoriredphotography.com )

The great whites stopped nosing around the boat, but they were still out there.

The captain could see them on his depth finder, on the bottom more than 200 feet below.

On the dive platform, William Winram strapped on a low-volume mask and long-blade fins, as did his two friends. Tall and wiry, with cool, narrow-set eyes and sandy-blond hair flecked with gray, Winram is a champion free-diver, capable of holding his breath for eight minutes. He once stroked to a depth of 295 feet and back without oxygen or fins.

PHOTOS: Swimming, cage-free, with the sharks

He planned to go meet the great whites today. No shark cage. No spear gun or knife. Just his camera. Photos and video would document the event.

The three jumped into the cool water. The blue was endless, faint rays of sun wobbling into the twilight depths below, bits of sediment and plankton glinting like stars in a pre-dawn gloom.

Winram, 46, was calm, looking down, taking long, deep breaths through his snorkel, filling his lungs to capacity.

He descended slowly to 60 feet and hung there, gently sculling his hands to stay in position. This was his Zen zone, weightless, heart rate slowed to near 30 beats a minute, his mind clear as the sea.

His friends Fred Buyle and Pierre Frolla acted as lookouts, treading on the surface.

Winram couldn't see anything below. He waited for two minutes, then headed back up to get more air, looking to see where the boat was, then scanning all around.

Great whites always come from behind.

At about 40 feet below, he heard the throat-pulsing sound that the divers make to signal one another. Mmph-mmph-mmph.

He turned around to see an adult shark coming at him faster than he'd ever experienced. Normally, they were cautious and skittish. This one, weighing well over a ton, looked like he was considering a bite.

Winram was too far from the boat to get there in time. And even if he had tried, the shark's instincts would lock down: prey.

So he turned straight at it and flared his legs wide to look bigger. Then he took three shots with his Canon.

::

In the last few years, divers like Winram have been debunking the sinister reputation of the so-called man-eater.

Certainly, a great white might take a taste of you if you're not looking, which might in turn kill you. It happens once in a while. But face-to-face — for the rare person with the disposition to desire such a meeting — they are wary and shy, if not a bit curious. Once comfortable with you, they might let you touch them, even hang on to their dorsal fins and ride them. They'll show you when they're angry by head-bumping you, or hungry by rushing you, but usually a good thwack on the nose will send them reeling in shock.

A South African named Andre Hartman is often credited as the first diver to leave the cage to interact with great whites, a.k.a. "white death." But commercial divers and shark researchers have been quietly coexisting with them for many years, as have untold surfers and swimmers who never knew they were being checked out from below.

"Most of the time they're pretty wary," said Ron Elliott, a sea-urchin diver who harvested the cold, rough waters of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge, for 15 years.

The islands are a feeding ground for great whites, and Elliott encountered one on about every other dive. "They don't want to get injured. They're all scarred up by elephant seals. They're kind of the sneak-attack type. Sometimes they come up at you exercising their jaws. You got to go around and poke them. Usually, if you show some aggression, they back off.

"I had one instance where there was going to be a serious attack. He was going to speed-rush me. But I looked at him and he broke off."

Elliott accepted them as a manageable hazard of doing business in their world. Others, like Hartman, saw them as business themselves, taking tourists down with him.

Winram grew to love them.

The Vancouver, Canada, native tags the animals for scientists and captures images of them that confound us. He wants to show that humans' natural fear has been blown way out of proportion and convince people that the creatures deserve protection.

His business card reads: "Shark Publicist."

On a recent night he was speaking to about 120 "shark aficionados" at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco. On the wall above him was a photo of the shark nosing up at him, off Baja California's Guadalupe Island in November 2009.

"It stopped. You're not prey. What are you?" Winram recalled. "Sharks pick up on your vibe."

The Natural Resources Defense Council had invited Winram to speak to ocean-minded groups in the Bay Area as part of its campaign to pass a bill that would ban the sale of shark fins in California. An estimated 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins every year, and a third of shark species are nearing extinction.

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