@

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.

We wait.

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.

TAGS: , , , , , , ,

Matthew Baldwin MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

116 Responses to “Man Goes Into Cage”

  1. Aaron Dietz says:

    Wow, this was awesome. A well-written, riveting piece!

    My favorite parts were the communications–the description of hands moving to say stuff. I think that really puts the reader into the moment, because the reader is translating them and then realizing what it’s like to be down there. No words. And then when the shark comes it’s all the more real.

    Great stuff!

    • Matt says:

      And Aaron gets first bite! Thanks, man!

      I’ve heard of places that bring underwater versions of those eraseable white boards with them, but we didn’t have any of that, so it was basic impromptu sign language for us!

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Scary stuff. VERY cool! Where did you leave from- San Diego? Mexico?

    Really nice balance between the flow of the piece and the amount of detail. Also appreciated you explaining how you reached the conclusion that it was a “she.” I was bamboozled on that one.

    This is one cool experience, man. Well done.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Joe. I’m always looking to inform and terrify in equal measure.

      This was actually off of the coast of Monteray/S.F., in about 2001 if I remember correctly. Right before cage diving as a tourist industry really took off. My uncle knew I guy with connections to a charter dive agency, so he put me in touch.

      There is a company that does cage dives based here in San Diego, though. I believe they do most of theirs south of the border near Isla Guadalupe.

  3. Richard Cox says:

    I know what you mean about the camera, but still, it’s like taking pictures of the Grand Canyon–totally futile. You have to be there to truly appreciate it.

    I could see her rolling, and how those gums or whatever seem to bulge out, the teeth almost coming unhinged…or maybe I’m just remembering Jaws. Either way, I would have loved to do this. I’m totally jealous.

    Excellently realized here, Matt. Well done.

    • Matt says:

      People I tell this story to are either fascinated or scared shitless–the aquaphobic friend I mentioned refused to listen to any of the details.

      And you’re completely right with the Grand Canyon analogy. Nothing about any of the images or the footage I’d seen prepared me to actually be in the presence of one of these sharks. She was just so big…and awesome….

  4. Zara Potts says:

    That’s funny, I always think of sharks as being female.

    Nice, descriptive piece, Matt.
    Pretty. Sharp. Clean.

    I like how you neatly compare the teeth of the coastline with the teeth of the shark and the meaty way you describe your own reactions as well as the brutal beauty of nature.

    And their eyes are so hypnotic, yes? Amazingly beautiful in a scary kind of way…

  5. Simone says:

    Matt, this was awesome.

    This line he me holding my breath:

    “Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat.

    I’ve watched way too many documentaries and Jaws movies to be scared shitless about sharks. I tend not to venture too deep into the sea for fear of being mercilessly grabbed by a set of jaws and pulled under the water, never to be seen again. I don’t go into water that’s murky either, I’m scared of what might be lurking under it. *shivers*

    • Simone says:

      On a side note we have the Kwazulu Natal Sharks Board that sets up shark nets along the Kwazulu Natal coastline.

      Here’s a link to it:

      http://www.shark.co.za/

    • Matt says:

      As hyperbolic as it seems, that line is 100% true. Great Whites are so sensetive to electrical fields they can detect the impulses of a person’s heartbeat from a certain distance.

      I love shark documentaries, and my DVD copy of Jaws gets watched on a regular basis; every time I go to the beach I want to watch it when I get home, for some strange, sick reason. They’ve always fascinated me, way, way more than I’ve ever feared them.

      That’s a nice site. I’m glad they took the route of being informative instead of sensational with it, though I might not have put the faces of those bull (Zambezi) sharks in quite such sharp focus.

      Did you click on that video link I included? It was right off the coast of South Africa where they first discovered Great Whites leaping clear from the water while hunting. For a long time it was thought to be behavior unique to the region.

      • Simone says:

        There’s no doubt that that has now made me respect Sharks even more. Still scared shitless though.

        Yeah, it is a pretty cool site. Yesterday was the first time I actually saw it, after reading your piece I did some googling.

        The video is awesome. It’s around Seal Island, which is just of the False Bay coast near Cape Town. I also thought that Shark Breaching was particular to the SA coast. Interesting.

        ***

        On another note I watched a documentary about surfing called Bustin’ Down the Door. It’s about the rise of professional surfing in the 70′s. Have you seen it? I thought it was great. Really informative and man, it made me want to learn how to surf. They make it look so easy and graceful. But i’d probably be looking over my shoulder for sharks all the time.

        http://www.bustindownthedoor.com/flash.html

        • Matt says:

          As I understand it, Seal Island is the place where it is observed most often, as there are a lot of deep trenches down there that allow them to get the right depth to swim upwards. But they same behavior has been seen off of California and Australia, too. Just goes to show how very little we actually know about Great Whites. No one’s ever seen them mate or give birth, for instance.

          I’ve seen the Endless Summer films and Surfwise, but not Bustin Down the Door. Going to have to check that one out.

  6. Slade Ham says:

    Maaaan… You know this is on my to-do list right? We’ve had this conversation, yes? Aaaand, you posted on Shark Week. Hell yeah. I’ll say it; I’m jealous.

    • Matt says:

      Absolutely, 100% worth doing. And the Shark Week thing? Not a coincidence. I’ve been meaning to tell this story for a while now (it’s about 9 years old), and figured it was time.

      My next goal is to share water with a whale shark. Wanna come along for that one?

      • Slade Ham says:

        I would love to. The first time I went to Djibouti, I was supposed to go swimming with them in the Gulf of Aden. Flight delays ended up causing me to miss the trip by an hour. I’ve never quite forgotten that missed opportunity… so yeah. I do want to go.

  7. Irene Zion says:

    Very well-written piece by a crazy-ass person!
    Does your mother know you did this?
    Sheesh!

    • Matt says:

      I’d rather my ass be crazy than dumb!

      And haven’t we all mutually decided by now that getting my mother involved in anything I do really isn’t a good idea?

  8. Becky says:

    I would have shit my pants.

    Or my wetsuit, as it were.

    I would totally be on the boat with your buddy, neurotically rehashing the exact nature of the 1000 bad deaths and reassuring both of us that we are not terrified, we are just sane.

    I couldn’t handle an eel in Hanauma Bay, for godssakes.

    Still. That must have been pretty fuckin’ cool.

    • Tawni says:

      I snorkled in Hanauma Bay too! I was nervous at first, and then I got used to it, decided I loved it, and they couldn’t drag me out of the water until the end of the day. But I didn’t see an eel, just all of the beautiful rainbow-colored fish. Amazing.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I had major face-in-water anxiety. Was panting and huffing and barely holding back panic, which is messed up, since I’m a pretty strong swimmer and grew up with water. FRESH water, though.

        Just as I started to relax, I looked down and there was a big, brown moray eel with gnarly, pointy teeth staring at me with his beady eyes up through a hole in the coral.

        I tried to play cool, gesturing to Palani that I was just headed back for a rest, but I swam back to shore so fast, I’m pretty sure I left a wake.

        • Matt says:

          I feel kind of bad for laughing, but that really is a funny mental image.

          I get the face-in-the-water thing, though. Back (waaaaaaaayy) back when I taught swim lessons, that anxiety was the biggest hurdle in teaching the kids how to hold their breath underwater.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          But that’s just it. I’ll put my face in the water all day. I’ll swim around underwater all day. With my eyes closed, holding my breath.

          Inhaling with your face in the water is terrifying, even if your conscious brain knows the snorkel is up in the free air.

          I was basically hyperventilating.

        • Matt says:

          It took me a little while to get used to the SCUBA regulator the first time I used it. It’s about as foreign a breathing method as you can think of.

      • Matt says:

        During one of my snorkling trips in Maui I came across two eels, several puffer fish, a couple of small scalloped hammerheads, and a sea turtle. And that was just the first two hours! Love the biodiversity of the place!

    • Matt says:

      Bowel–loosening is a perfectly legitimate reaction, in my opinion. Ocean life is strange, and yes, often dangerous. And, as Don mentions below, there’s all the cultural baggage that goes along with sharks.

      But cool? Hell, yes.

  9. Tawni says:

    My first thought as I started reading was, “He wrote this for Shark Week!” like Slade mentions above. I was so excited when you spotted the Great White! What an incredible experience that must have been. Absolutely gripping piece, Matt.

  10. Mary Richert says:

    While you may still be the unofficial TNB Violence Guy, this piece is really sharp. Great images. The light is just excellent. I also really love the hand signals of the dive master. Really great structure there … No, I can’t respond to a piece of writing without taking the English major approach. <3 Good work, man.

    • Matt says:

      I’m glad you did! We often have such praise (les frequently, derision) for the content of a piece that we don’t discuss the language of it very much. Nice to see someone’s keeping an eye out.

  11. Matt, your pieces are always sort of fascinating for me in that whatever you’re doing in them seems to unfailingly be The Last Thing I Would Ever Do, and this shark business definitely falls into that category, not so much because of the shark but because of the under-water part. I’m with Becky and have a bit of a water phobia, though in my case it’s fairly warranted since I don’t know how to swim. I snorkled with the sharks once in Belize, but I had to be led around by a string by the group leader, and wear a swim belt, that’s how lame I am. The sharks were cool, though! They weren’t like this one, obviously. They were the sort you could go around, used to people. Still, they felt really cool to touch. Great writing here.

    • Matt says:

      Well, I’ve never been into drugs, so I have to get my rocks off by going out into nature and doing, as Irene would say, crazy-ass shit. One day, something’s probably going to eat me.

      I remember being really, really floored the first time I met someone who couldn’t swim, and it made me realize just how lucky I am to have grown up both with a pool and the ocean close by.

      So with that, plus your water phobia, mad props for being courageous enough to get in the water and snorkle, nevermind the presence of sharks. Even a docile seeming nurse shark can give a really nasty bite, so it took some backbone to get in the water with them.

      Ever the opportunity arises, I’ll give you some swim lessons.

  12. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    I am so with your fear-of-open-water friend on this one, so I am grateful to at least be able to experience this through your amazingly deft descriptions. “The broken teeth of the California coast …” “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.” “A gray ghost in a long, endless night.” Nice!

    • Matt says:

      His other deep fear is of being eaten alive, especially by animals. He used to have recurring dreams of being devoured by carnivorous versions of domestic livestock, dinosaurs, etc. Underwater with a shark would hit both of those fears right on the noggin.

      Glad you liked (and noticed!) those lines. I was rather proud of them.

  13. Beautiful writing, Matt. It’s sort of crazy the things we will do to really understand nature and ourselves…not that I think this was crazy. I once witnessed a shark-viewing expedition where the water was chummed, then the viewers had to *swim through the chum* to get into the cage to see the sharks in their feeding frenzy.

    Great whites freak me out so much. I swam with nurse sharks; I am such a pansy.

    Best,

    EC

    • Matt says:

      I’d rather do something crazy to understand nature than live with the unease and trepidation of uncertainty.

      They didn’t chum the water, which has really become frowned on among the diving community. I cannot believe the dive company had the viewers swim through the chum to get into the cage–that just seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

      Nurse sharks are nothing to sneer at. Like I mentioned to Gina, they can give a really nasty bite.

  14. New Orleans Lady says:

    SHARK WEEK!!
    I knew you would post something toothy for the occasion!! Woo-hoo!

    “Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat”

    Wow. When I’m nervous or anxious, I bite the skin on my lips. After this, I’m badly in need of some top-notch chap stick. Well done.

    Besides the thought of losing my son, sharks are my greatest fear. I love them. They’re beautiful, mysterious, and magical but also deadly. I blame my fear on seeing Jaws WAY too young but my love for all things ocean/beach kind of balances it out. What a great and intense post, Matt.

    • Matt says:

      I’ve had this story in reserve for a while, and even took a crack at writing it down a few months ago, but none of those drafts really worked. Glad this one came out so well.

      Sorry about the skin on your lips!

  15. Don Mitchell says:

    It’s very nice, Matt.

    It’s easy to understand strong reactions to creatures like Great Whites, imbued as they are with so much cultural baggage.

    Your piece made we wonder how much of what you felt was because the shark was just plain big. Big.

    I thought about that for a while, and I decided that there’s a certain awe that comes from being in the presence of a big animal* — no matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be dangerous. And this is amplified by the understanding that that huge animal is aware of you.

    I was thinking of the first time I stood next to a Percheron horse, or near an elephant, or looked into the sea below a (very) small boat to see a giant manta ray three or four feet below the surface. Big!

    We all have at least some understanding of these big animals — I mean, they aren’t just undifferentiated big masses to us — and what we know about them, fear about them, love about them, is what we think about first.

    But then there’s just plain It’s Alive and It’s Big and It’s Looking At Me

    *big trees, too, but let’s stick to animals

    • Gloria says:

      Re: Big Trees – I did feel this same awe the first (and only) time I went to the Redwood Forrest. The only large animal I’ve ever been next to is an elephant and, yeah, I thought, “That’s one big animal.”

    • Matt says:

      Yes, I had the exact same response the first time I saw the redwoods. So huge, and so old….they were a pretty er, big reminder of my own mortality.

      Glad you liked this piece, Don. I’m always a little leary of putting my dilettante science-y pieces up, since we’ve got a couple genuine scientists here.

      And you’re absolutely right about the bigness. Richard makes a comparison to seeing the Grand Canyon in person vs. seeing it in a photograph—totally different experience. Only seeing it in the flesh really impresses on a person the sheer scope of the thing.

      Same with the shark. So big, so strong, so powerful….unavoidable reminder of just how helpless my own morphology is in that environment. As good a swimmer as I might be, in the end I’m just a silly primate who’s half-convinced himself he’s part amphibious.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        I’m remembering the first time I saw a redwood. I was 11, and up from Hawai’i for the first time. It was at Muir Woods. I was impressed, yes, but at about the same time my mother walked me into that first grove, I saw a snake, and that was the end of looking at the redwoods for a while. The snake was more exciting to me than the redwoods were. Sorry, but true. I had never seen a live snake before.

        I’m always nervous in the big salt sea. I admit it.

        • Matt says:

          I probably would have done the same thing. “Nice big tree….ooh! Reptile!” The only saving grace would’ve been that I’d already had several snakes as pets at that point in time, so they didn’t fascinate me near as much in the wild.

          Nervous is a valid response.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          BTW, Matt. Are you wearing armor or a suit of lights in your new avatar? Damned if I can work it out. Nice hat, too.

        • Matt says:

          No, it’s just a T-shirt with a large fancy design on it. But I like to think it keeps me armored against the fools of the world.

          And thanks. I love this hat.

      • Gloria says:

        “Only seeing it in the flesh really impresses on a person the sheer scope of the thing.”

        Yes! This is the other source of my anxiety about open water, especially the ocean. I grew up in the desert southwest. I was living in Barstow the first time I saw rain – and I remember it clearly. So, imagine how blown my mind was the first time I saw the ocean. It’s just too much to take in, man. It’s gonna eat me, I can feel it.

        • Matt says:

          Whereas I, having grown up next to the ocean, had the same response the first time I saw a true desert in person: “Man, it just goes on and on.”

          Followed immediately by my urge to venture out into it.

        • Gloria says:

          I remember loving the ocean when I was a kid. I’d only been to it two or three times prior to moving near it in my early twenties. (Relatively speaking – I can get to the coast in under two hours.) But the head injury actually has caused me to experience acute fear in any potentially endangering situations – even though I was a total adrenaline junky prior. It gets worse as I get older. I picture myself like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as it Gets when I’m in my fifties.

    • kristen says:

      I like your Big Animal theory, Don. For instance, horses. I find them to be beautiful creatures, but the sheer size of their heads alone… Man, if I get to thinking too much about this aspect when I’m standing next to one… yeesh. Thankfully, I can usually shift my focus to the sleek grace of their musculature and their kind, pretty eyes and count on that to lift me out of any Big Head-related fear. But still.

      Big!

      (A finely-told account, Matt. Thanks.)

  16. Uche Ogbuji says:

    I’m a moderate aquaphobe, but I’ve always been one to pursue my phobias for the thrill, so this was a cool ride. Thanks for being such a good dive master.

  17. J.M. Blaine says:

    I heard a writer the other day
    say “Every thing is a story
    if you know how to say it”
    So the shark incident is great
    the cage and all but I’m sure others will comment
    on how cool that all is –
    what struck me was how well you threaded the words
    together – the way you described the guy telling
    you how big the shark was – that stuff is hard to do!
    You did it well here, really well.

  18. dwoz says:

    Don, In my way of thinking the awe comes from that realization that you are NOT always the top of the food chain, rather from the sheer size.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Well, if it’s something that could eat you — then yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t disagree in the least with your take, or Matt’s.

      I’m just advancing the notion that very large size (relative to humans) is part of the awe-equation, no matter who’s where on the food chain.

    • Matt says:

      Large size, big teeth, ability to projectile urinate up to twenty feet…these are all things that inspire healthy respect, even if there is no immediate danger of being eaten.

  19. Reminded me of a deleted scene from Open Water, Matt. Have you seen that? Kept waiting for you to unlock the cage. Really enjoyed this one. You got to be just a little crazy to get in that water south of SF…that’s the shark kingdom.

    • Matt says:

      I haven’t, actually, though I’ve read a bit about the real-life event that story was based on. Poor souls, those two.

      Shark kingdom, indeed! The entire reason we went out there, as the odds of seeing one were very high. And though I’m known to be a little…exuberant…when it comes to getting in touch with wildlife, I have enough respect to know my place in situations like these.

  20. Gloria says:

    I’m terrified of the open ocean, too – just like your friend. Reading this gave me pit sweat. And why the fear of the open ocean, you ask? Because of the movie Jaws.

    You couldn’t get me in this situation for all the tea in China. If my children’s lives depended on it, I’d probably do it.

    The pacing of this piece is absolutely impeccable. Great read, Matt!

    • Matt says:

      So how do you think your children–being boys–would respond to this sort of adventure?

      • Gloria says:

        Differently. Tolkien, who I’m pretty sure was born without the part of the brain that is supposed to register fear, would be there with bells on. Indigo, the more aggressive of the two, is actually pretty easily frightened and even if he said he would do it, he’d have a panick attack and probably shit himself. I have a feeling that’ll work itself out and he’ll be a thrill junkie later. That’s my sense.

  21. Echoing what some others have said, looking into the shark’s eye paints an indelible picture. Simultaneously, feral, controlled and lovely. Enjoyed this, Matt!

  22. Even without the teeth, the bite pressure alone could crush my bones.

    Intense. You did something I hope to do one day: sit in a cage underwater with a Great White swimming by. I’ve never enjoyed activities that are designed to scare the pants off me, like, say, bungee jumping, insane rollercoasters, or hot air balloons; however, to be in a cage underwater with a Great White, count me in. Quite the experience. Thanks for sharing.

    • Matt says:

      Worth doing, and I’m pretty sure there are diving companies operating on the east coast as well.

      I’ve done the bungee jumping and roller coaster thing. This was way, way cooler.

      Never tried the hot air balloon. Going to have to put that one on the list.

  23. Dana says:

    Very cool Matt!

    As others have mentioned, I love how you conveyed the impromptu underwater conversation. I saw Jaws in the theater the first week it came out and I don’t think I’ve ever truly gotten over it. Also I tend to have some incredibly bad luck out in deep water, so I can’t see myself ever giving this a shot, so thanks for sharing your experience. Was there any lighting in/on the cage?

    • Matt says:

      Poor Peter Benchley. Even though it made him a grip of money, he spent much of the rest of his life regretting he’d ever written that book. People still have such a terrible idea of sharks because of it and the subsequent movie (which, as I mentioned above, I love). He spent the last 20 years of his life trying to raise awareness of sharks.

      No, not lighting. All we had were our eyes. And the stretch of the Pacific running along California isn’t the clearest bit of water in the world, for sure.

  24. Greg Olear says:

    I can’t believe you needed a cage. Wuss.

  25. Holy hell, Matt! I’ve gone scuba diving many times in my life. But I’ve never gone down in a cage. Very, very cool, my friend.

  26. You timed this so well with Shark Week!

    Matt, I had a heart attack reading this. I’m not lying. Wow.

    I wish you remembered dialogue from then. Do you remember saying anything or mumbling anything into your mask? Is there any dialogue from just before or right after?

    I want dialogue, dammit. Shit, you talking to the shark. Anything!

    The reason? This piece would feel even scarier!!!

    OK, I need to calm down.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Nick. Sorry about your ticker, but if it’s any consolation, I am CPR certified.

      I’ve considered typing this story up for a while, and with Shark Week having come around again, now seemed the perfect time to do it.

      As far as dialog goes, there really isn’t much you can say with a SCUBA mouthpiece in your mouth. But if I COULD have spoken, I probably would have been saying stuff along the lines of “Sweet merciful crap, that’s a big damn fish.” So if you want to read through and just insert random, awestruck profanity, you’d probably get the desired effect.

  27. Simon Smithson says:

    Good, good piece, Matt.

    There’s something about that big pink mouth that freaks me out. Less so the rest of it, just the oddness of that colour. It’s subtly horrifying, not any less so when you consider the muscle it’s attached to.

    Have you ever read the book of Jaws? I love the film, but, like The Godfather, I think the book has something more going for it.

    Except, of course, for the line: ‘That’s some bad hat, Harry’.

    Again, well-written. There was a very poetic feel to your descriptions.

    • Matt says:

      Regarding the pink mouth, I have a (completely non-scientific) theory about that: it’s roughly the same shade as a washed-out bloodstain. Which, in it’s own right, is pretty damn creepy.

      Jaws was in fact the first adult novel I ever read. You’re right, there is indeed much more to it than the film–the Hopper/Ms. Brody affair, the mob angle, the greater comparison between Quint and Captain Ahab–but overall I think I actually enjoy the experience of watching the film more than I do reading the book. The improved dinner table seen between Brody & his son is a great moment, as is the three men’s scar comparison bit (they were all actually drunk) and Quint’s Indianapolis speech. All things missing from the novel.

  28. Judy Prince says:

    Egad, Matthew, I’ll never again contemplate a tuna sandwich in the same old way.

    A beautiful read.

    I especially liked this: “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.”

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Judy. I’m glad you enjoyed. I had a lot of fun writing this one.

      Tuna is one of the few types of seafood I cannot stand. Salmon runs a close second.

  29. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Matt, “the business end of a Great White” would make me grateful for a cage too. And Lord knows I hate to be encumbered. I liked this story — but as you know, I am a sucker for the ocean. You’ve captured an aquatic tone – if such a description isn’t entirely absurd – and I really enjoyed being in the water with you.

    • Matt says:

      Coming from head-on, they seriously look like teeth with an engine attached to it. Very strange sensation, to say the least.

      Happy to take a dip with you.

  30. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    What I enjoyed most about this piece is your tangible respect and appreciation for the shark. I can relate to your wish to touch her. I have that impulse constantly with animals, but I know it’s THEIR decision, not mine, to allow such interaction.

    This detail struck me: “…but now she’s close enough to detect the electrical impulses given off by my quickening heart.” So viceral, instinctive.

    And you are a brave bad-ass mf.

    • Matt says:

      Hahahahaha when I looked at this comment fresh out of bed this morning I read that last line as “You are one brave bad-ass smurf.”

      The thing about electrical impulses is something I stumbled upon while recreationally reading up on sharks. They all have special organs (called Ampules of Lorenzoli) that detect electrical impulses, and Whites are among the most electrically sensitive animals on the planet.

      I always want to touch animals. There is something about tactile contact that just hammers home to me the uniqueness of the experience. This, coupled with the fact that I seem to lack the inherent fear a lot of people have towards dangerous animals, likely means sooner or longer something’s going to eat me.

  31. Alison Aucoin says:

    I’m aquaphobic like your friend. Yes, it would be hell. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. Your description of the shark was so lovely, for a nanosecond I actually wanted to be there. Now that’s some good writin’!

  32. James D. Irwin says:

    Awesome story man…

    I don’t know what else to add really. I can’t even swim. Well, I’m not a strong swimmer and I tend to avoid deep water when I can. I also try and avoid sharks if at all possible.

    I used to go to the Sea Life centre in Brighton and they had a shark tank built around and over a passage so you could walk along and be surrounded by sharks. That terrified me even though I wasn’t in the water and was pretty much guaranteed not to be eaten.

    Lot of admiration for people who love animals as much as you clearly do. I mean I love animals, and wish them all the best, but other than dogs I don’t much feel much interest in touching them…

    • Matt says:

      Shark skin is very interesting to the touch. Very, very smooth if you touch from head down to tail. Like sandpaper if rub the other way. It even makes some people bleed.

      The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans has an enormous Gulf of Mexico exhibit, which includes sharks. There used to be a walkway over the top where visitors could go and look down. Not long after I moved down there, that walkway collapsed, dumping about a dozen people into the tank. All the sharks were so scared they went and hid in the corner.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I’ve heard before that sharks are generally afraid of people. I mean shark attacks have happened, but they tend to get rather a bad press because of films like Jaws.

        I like sharks. I wouldn’t want to touch them, but there’s something really quite beautiful about them. A certain sleekness of design. Not so much hammer head sharks though. They all look like Admiral Ackbar.

  33. Jen Violi says:

    love all of it . . . love the broken teeth of the California coast which seem like small potatoes once you’re up close and personal with HER. Thanks for the riveting, well-rendered ride . . .

  34. Sarah says:

    Great article. We went cage diving with white sharks at Isla Guadalupe in 2008 with http://www.sharkdiver.com it was five days of the most intense shark encounters I have ever had. The island is 210 miles off the California coast. The trip there was miserable, high seas, very sick. Once we were at the island though calm waters prevailed and we encountered over 15 animals!

    • Matt says:

      I’ve been considering a trip with that self-same company, actually. They seem so come highly recommended. I totally could go for five days of this.

  35. Erika Rae says:

    You’re so hard core, Matt.

    Nice description – I felt like I was right there with you the whole time. I especially like to know about the eyes. If the eyes are really the window to the “soul” of the animal, then you gave us exactly what we needed to know. Beautifully written.

    Here’s my question. If a shark attacks a cage, what do the people inside the cage hold onto to brace themselves? It seems like they’d go flying to the other side of the cage, which would then expose their hands (frantically grabbing bars) to whatever is out there (i.e. another shark?). Or is there a pole in the middle? I think I would have to insist on a pole. No wise cracks, people.

    • Matt says:

      As I understand it, sharks rarely attack the cage; they might get curious about it and give it a bump, but there’s nothing about it that registers as “food” so no reason to attack. If a full grown White actually decided he wanted whatever was in there, well….let’s just say the cage isn’t going to stop him.

      There’s no pole. Just a box made out of metal rods.

  36. Rachel Pollon says:

    How long were you in that cage, Matt? Yow, I felt like I was there… with you… hyper-ventilating and trying to make the hand signal for “bring me up!” to the people waiting in the boat. And that’s all before the shark was even in the vicinity. I’m sure it was awe inspiring to see her up close and in person. I bet in that moment I would feel more zen than during the anticipating part. Which sort of translates to all parts of life, really. Great job describing such a huge and extraordinary moment.

    • Matt says:

      About an hour, if I remember correctly. That’s about all the air we had in our tanks.

      It really, really was a neat thing to do. I’m hoping to go again some point soon.

  37. New Orleans Lady says:

    100

  38. Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat.

    Chicks, man.

    This reminded me of Victory is a Kick in the Head, the karate piece you wrote a while ago. Sort of like slow motion, or “bullet time”, where every detail of the action is clear, and well worth observing. Someone recently asked me how a book could have a car chase in it. I reckon you could write one.

    Apologies if someone’s already cracked that first joke.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Steve.

      I may just take up the challenge of writing that car chase scene, now that you’ve thrown down the gauntlet–or the car keys, as it were.

  39. D.R. Haney says:

    Sorry to be so late to respond, Matt. I’ve been off the grid, as you know, and I’m gradually reacclimating.

    Anyway, this is probably my favorite post of yours since the orca post. You and the sea — you’re an excellent match. I see that Zara already cited the detail about the teeth of the coast, which was one of my own favorites.

    I’ve been up all night working on the new book, so I’m now going to drop, and I hope I dream about sharks. For the past year, I mainly dream about editing: posts and books and stories that need to be tweaked. Very dull dreams, in other words. I’d love to have a good nature dream — even if it’s a nightmare.

    • Matt says:

      Duke, I’m glad you took the time to come by.

      So me and the sea works for you, eh? Maybe I’ll have to compose a third entry, and make it a trytych. Might be able to get one on sea horses going before the end of the year.

      Hope you dreampt of the deep dark places, and the wild wonders therein.

  40. Sorry to have overlooked this one for so long… I didn’t want to give it a 2 minute glance.

    Anyway, I’m jealous of your Great White encounter. To be that close to one of these monsters – regardless of cage – seems like one of the most indescribable sensations.

    Yet you’ve described it beautifully. Kudos. Particularly how suddenly the beast appears and disappears. I think that’s what’s so terrifying about sharks. They come and go so silently, so brilliantly. From the dark and back in a split-second.

    • Matt says:

      From the dark and back in a split second, indeed.

      Thanks for the read, David. This one got bumped off the front page really fast, so I think a lot of people missed it.

      I want to do this again, one day–and this time, I’ll remember an underwater camera!

  41. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Matt, I know I’m horribly late to the party but I’d made a mental bookmark of this piece before life dragged me under and did not want to let it slip away. Really great piece – I especially loved your description of her eye. I can picture it, ceaselessly gathering data to feed into the survival processor perpetually running in her head. Beautiful.

    One of my brothers is, well, a complete idiot and used to a bit of diving. He outfitted himself like a medieval knight, with all sorts of armaments “in case of shark”. One day he called me to say he’d sold all of it. He’d been dusk-diving the night prior and finally encountered one. Couldn’t say which kind since, in his words, “I just saw teeth blurring at my face and by the time I stopped shrieking into my regulator and unclenched my eyes, it was a speck behind me. I didn’t have time to piss myself much less get the bang stick up.”

    Reminds me of a bad joke I recently read. A young shark asks his father why they circle humans so much before they kill them. The father replies that “they taste much better without all the shit still inside them.” (:

  42. [...] of martial arts.  Has demonstrated both skill sets at TNB, where we have read about him taking on sharks, bears, knife-wielding French Quarter muggers…but not, unfortunately, gun-toting drug [...]

  43. Elizabeth says:

    Holy crap, Matt!!! I feel like I should say something halfway intelligent about this piece — which, as always, is top-notch writing — but I’m in awe. I’ve wanted to cage dive with sharks forever but figured it would cost a fortune. (Which it might, I don’t know.)

    What an amazing experience! You’re my hero.

  44. Mady says:

    This is beautiful- the shark as the sublime. When you said that she could hear your heart beating, it just felt saturated with the presence of some ancient sort of intimacy forgotten by most of the civilized world. I hadn’t thought about it before- the intimacy of predator and prey.

    I wish you had gotten to touch her. And not lose a hand in the process, of course.

  45. [...] Baldwin was safe in an underwater cage as a Great White circled. He didn’t stick his arm [...]

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