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New teeth for California’s shark tourism trade?

New federal rules under discussion could limit future visits to one of the world’s great concentrations of great whites off the California coast.
Tourist divers plunge in a shark diving cage off the Farallon Islands 26 miles west of California's coastline
Tourists plunge into a shark diving cage off the Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of California's coastline, on Nov. 17.Staff / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

“Over there -- shark!”

After nearing the Farallon Islands, 26 nautical miles west of San Francisco, the boat’s captain shouts out. A slick of dark red seal blood spreads across an ocean surface slashed by the occasional bobbing of a great white shark fin.

For a small group of shark enthusiasts, the adventure was only beginning. It was time to don a wetsuit and enter a cage the size of an elevator to view one of nature’s fiercest predators face to face.

“We never came to California before because we were afraid of earthquakes,” said an enthusiastic David Fietz, 46, who owns some oil wells in Midland, Texas. “But I’ve always wanted to see a great white shark.”

Every year, a few hundred adventurous tourists climb into a submerged cage off the remote Farallon Islands in hopes of encountering at least one of the 20 to 40 great white sharks that prowl the waters from September to November.

The last trip of the year takes place on Sunday, but new federal rules under discussion could limit future visits to one of the world’s great concentrations of great whites.

From the submerged cage
Divers put on thick wetsuits then climb into the frigid water and the cage moored at the back of the boat.

“This cage has never been hit head-on or bitten, but it has been touched when a shark was cruising sideways,” said David Moskito, who was leading the dive for Great White Adventures.

A great white has never eaten anyone in a cage off the Farallons, although one well-known skin diver was seriously injured during an attack in 1962. But there are always a few seasick passengers on the choppy 12-hour tour, which costs $775 a person.

Moskito lowered into the water by rope seal-shaped decoy lures made of a carpet-like material.

Teams of four divers take 30-minute turns in the cage and spend much of the time gazing into the ever-swirling interaction of seawater and light in search of a shark.

Thrill of the kill
On Friday, several divers saw nothing living, but by afternoon, a few sharks did slowly pass by, one apparently curious about the decoy but not hungry enough to bite.

“The cage wasn’t what I expected, but just seeing a kill on the water was exciting enough,” said Deema Ghosheh, a lawyer from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

From the surface, the group saw signs of another killing, probably of a sea lion. As blood rose to the surface, a shark bobbed along the surface and birds swooped, seeking scraps.

Across the water echoed the yelping of sea lions and elephant seals splayed on the rocks of the islands, whose sole human inhabitants are a few research scientists.

Later, the crew lowered waterproof speakers into the sea and played some AC/DC songs including “Highway to Hell,” saying the heavy metal vibrations help lure the toothy hunters.

Do not disturb
Great White Adventures has operated the tours since 1998. Because there are no rules governing such shark tourism, some environmentalists are seeking wide future restrictions.

“One of our concerns is that white shark research and ecotourism has become very popular,” said Maria Brown, superintendent of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

“When we started looking at the white shark issue there was one white shark researcher, one ecotourism operator. Since then there have been up to nine ecotourism operators and two to three researchers interested, all looking at the same shark (species),” she continued. “Our preference is to make sure the sharks are not disturbed.”

The Point Reyes Bird Observatory works with the U.S. government to conduct scientific research and oversee the Farallons, which have a very extensive bird population.

“We are concerned about activities by for-profit enterprises attempting to show white sharks to paying customers,” the group says on its Web site. “We feel that the sharks are at risk and that regulations are needed.”

Moskito says his company welcomes regulation to keep out unscrupulous operators and says his tours do not disturb sharks. “If it could be shown this was hurting the sharks, I’d be gone tomorrow,” he said.

Last month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed new rules that would bar moves to lure sharks with decoys and keep non-licensed boats at least 50 yards from sharks near the islands.

Generally tour operators do not “chum”, tossing overboard blood and meat in a practice sometimes used by great white tours in South Africa and Australia, Brown said, even though rules do not ban it at the Farallons for those fishing.

The agency is now inviting public comment and will implement new rules sometime next year, she said.