The cage hangs suspended just under the water’s surface by a series of pontoons and rigging tethering it to the boat above. Inside it the dive master and I float like the nearby bait lines of tuna drifting lightly in the current.
We are miles out to sea, well beyond where the Pacific endlessly smashes itself upon the broken teeth of the California coast. From the deck a person can still see the thick sleek sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks in the distance, but under here everything is an unending gray-blue expanse, as the light only penetrates in translucent fingers that grasp at the darkness without finding purchase.
Occasionally schooling fish flicker silver at the very edge of vision, but otherwise the ocean appears empty. The only sounds are the hiss of our respirators and the bubbling escape of our breath.
When I make eye contact with the dive master he taps his wrist as though indicating a watch and draws a clockwise circle in front of my mask, a gesture I interpret as It takes a little time.
Despite being a veteran snorkeler I am unused to the neoprene casing of the wetsuit and the weight of the breathing apparatus on my back. I don’t like the restraint of the cage much, either; I would prefer to be swimming unencumbered, the water on my skin, even though I know a thousand bad deaths might be waiting so far from shore. Inside the cage it is too easy to compare myself to a morsel in a bait box.
With nothing other to do than float and breathe, I study the depths below, hoping for some fish, or a sea lion, or even some red devils, but nothing emerges. The continental shelf is down there somewhere, hidden under layers of blue so deep as to be black.
A good friend once confessed to a deep-seated, almost instinctual fear of the open ocean; doubtless he would find this experience to be absolute hell.
Just as I’m starting to think we’re just going to deplete our oxygen reserves watching oily tuna bait dangle, the dive master taps my arm and points out into the gloom. At first, it’s difficult to see, but before too long what looks like a smooth gray blur casually reveals itself as the approaching robust snout and unclosed grin of a Great White shark.
Swimming straight for us.
This is what I’ve come here for. I’ve consumed hundreds of hours of documentary footage of sharks. I’ve gone skin diving with leopard sharks, sand tigers, hammerheads and moray eels. Once during a trip to the Sea of Cortez a curious manta came close enough for me to touch it.
None of those experiences are adequate preparation for seeing the business end of a Great White casually, implacably bearing down on you.
I am suddenly very, very grateful for the presence of the cage.
It passes around us slowly at first, cruising a wide perimeter around the boat. It’s a big animal. As it passes out of sight beyond the stern I hold my hands out to the dive master like I’m grasping a box. How big? He responds by holding up a series of fingers, 5-5-2, then rocking his flattened palm back and forth. 12 ft, more or less.
The shark circles us twice more, tightening the gyre with each pass. For such a big fish it passes through the water with little effort from the broad-bladed tail. I think of that tail, strong enough to propel the shark clear out of the water in pursuit of prey, and shiver despite my wetsuit. The last turn is close enough that I can see the absence of the male claspers; “it” is a “she,” terrifying and magnificent.
I could kick myself for failing to bring one of those disposable underwater cameras, even though I know the cheap lense would be unlikely to pick up anything in these visibility conditions.
She breaks her pattern and swims beneath the boat, passing close enough that I can the feel wake as she cuts through the water. Her senses are keen enough to have smelled the bait fish, but now she’s close enough to detect the electrical impulses given off by my quickening heart.
Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat.
We watch her and she watches us, unblinking, one eye always fixed on the cage even as she inspects the baits. Others have described the immense black of shark’s eye as something dead, or lifeless, but what I see instead is curiosity, an eye straining to take in everything it can. Seeing her so close fills me with a sensation that is not quite fear or excitement, some kind of galvanizing adrenal fascination I have no word for. Awe is perhaps the closest.
I’m fascinated by her, by the elegant design millions of years of evolution have given her. Despite how at home I feel in the water, seeing that torpedo form in motion demonstrates how feeble my own meatsack body is for handling these elements.
I want to touch her. I want to reach out beyond the bars of the cage and let my hand run over the smooth-sharp denticle surface of her skin. But the baits are all—in retrospect, very wisely—strung at points too far away from the cage, and she remains safely out of contact range.
Finally, after one last pass, the shark turns away from us, eyes rolling back and jaws slipping forwards as she snaps at one of the baits. With a flash of serrated teeth and the audible crunch of fishbone it is gone, leaving just a blunted metal weight at the end of the thick white rope.
When she tries for the next one the crew above yank on the bait rope, causing her to chase, to seize and thrash about in the nature documentary theatrics of an attack. For one instant she rolls, and I get the clear sight of the gapping jaws and fresh pink mouth before she bites down on the chunk of tuna. Even without the teeth, the bite pressure alone could crush my bones.
A few minutes thrashing and it is done, the sea gone as calm as it was before her feed began; a few scraps of tuna hanging in the water offer the only evidence it ever happened. She cruises around us a bit more, as though expecting us to provide her with more food. Eventually she turns away, and with a few strokes of her tail vanishes back into the gloom just as casually as she emerged from it, disappearing like a gray ghost in a long endless night.