Eye to Eye with a Great White -

a Photo Essay
  Awesome as watching White Sharks from the surface is, the experience cannot compare to 'meeting' these animals underwater.  Until you have been eye-to-eye with a Great White - if only from within the protective confines of a shark cage -  you cannot truly appreciate the mind behind the jaws. 
One may speak glibly of a White Shark that is 12 or 14 or even 16 feet (3.7 or 4.3 or even 5 metres) long, but until you are in the water next to one, the figures are meaningless and without implication. The bodily bulk of these animals is simply enormous.  It is difficult to think of what you are looking at as a fish it more closely resembles a city bus with fins.  Yet it moves with the supreme fluid grace of a creature unbound by gravity or drag.  It is a specter, a ghost yet undoubtedly solid and capable of affecting the living. 
Closer and closer the animal comes, resolving out of the greenish underwater haze like a magician from a cloud of smoke.  Sleek.  Muscular.  Powerful.  Yet strangely stand-offish ... even timid.  It seems ludicrous that an animal many times your size one with toothy jaws that could crush you to jelly about as easily as you might crush a blade of grass underfoot would be so skittish.  And yet this notorious 'monster' of myth and legend approaches very carefully, flicking away at the slightest of your movements.
The animal circles yet again, gliding in from another direction.  Although the water is cold, you try to be very still.  You try to avoid eye contact, to avoid making the shark any more skittish than it already is, but you cannot help yourself.  There is something intolerable about knowing one of the sea's the most amazing predators is very near yet being unable to see it.  So you sneak a peek and, in response, off it zooms again.  Frustration!  Agony!  Yet you are intensely excited.
Finally, at long last, the animal screws up its courage enough to investigate the baits.  There it is:  the Great White Shark of which you had seen and heard so much.  It's strange:  the animal looks exactly like the countless photos and films you've seen, but it doesn't 'feel' quite like you expected.  It carries a sort of calm, self-assured majesty.  Charisma.  It's almost as though this animal 'knows' it's a superstar.
As the animal moves in even closer, you can for the first time look directly into its eyes.  They are not the 'featureless, black portholes' they have been described to be.  You can clearly see structure there pale rim, dark iris and black, circular pupil.  As the shark swim past you, its eye rotates in the socket to keep you in view.  As you strain to maintain eye contact, an unexpected thought suddenly resolves into sharp focus:  there is a mind behind the most famous jaws in the world. This is not a mere 'stupid' fish, but a sentient being, as curious about you as you are of it.  With that, your  encounter is slapped shut as the crescent-shaped tail propels the shark back into the gloom from whence it came ...  

The sequence at left was shot by Rick Allen, of Nautilus Productions.  It shows a young but battle-scarred White Shark making an investigatory pass at the bait secured at the stern of our research vessel in False Bay, South Africa.  The shark then seems to become confused by the electromagnetic field generated by the port-side outboard motor and gives it a tentative, exploratory 'nip'.  Before we understood that sharks are sensitive to such invisible cues, such nips were interpreted as aggressive or indiscriminate.  We now know better.

 

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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