This is part 1 of a 5-part continuous story about our most exciting everyday monsters. Check back weekly to read on.
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze back into you.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
The view of the next few feet suddenly opens up to expansive cold green haze. We reach the edge of the kelp and stop to readjust before we continue our transect. My hands are mostly numb, making it hard to hold my slate. I can barely feel the solid graphite pencil we use to take data underwater instead of regular wooden pencils, which float and disintegrate in seawater. I could have worn thicker gloves, but I prefer to have the dexterity so the writing on my data sheets doesn’t look like the hash marks of an inmate with head trauma, who is counting off the days of his prison sentence on a cell wall. We’re stalling. We swam the last 5 transects straight through without hesitation. The adrenaline helped us plow the water a good deal faster than is becoming of a careful scientist. The cold is slowing us down now. When we were still warm, it was easier to be cavalier about the shark warning signs on the beach this morning. We could just as easily keep swimming. We know we will find nothing on this leg of the transect. We’re giving ourselves a minute to check the fear.
I hover just short of the last even-spaced stipes of kelp that mark the sharp edge of the patch where it was harvested yesterday. I look over my data sheet. That poor inmate seems to have served several hundred days in the place where we count tube-snouts. Aulorhynchus flavidus is a stout needle-shaped fish that schools in the hundreds through the kelp forests here in San Simeon. They shimmer through the middle of the invisible two-meter box that denotes which fishes we count in our study, and which we do not. I smile to myself thinking about their friendly appearance though I know better than to attribute my own emotions to fishes. Like most things in the ocean, they would probably eat me if they were able. It just feels good to distract myself from the upcoming swim. Above me, Paddy emerges from the dark kelp canopy. I am impressed at how well camouflaged he has been. On more than one occasion he seemed to have disappeared completely while counting the tiny young-of-the-year rockfish that use the convoluted kelp canopy as rookery habitat upon returning from their larval lives in the plankton. The canopy is incredibly thick in this fall season. Paddy’s black wetsuit had perfectly blended into the dark underside of the giant Macrocystis that is spread in a continuous ceiling across the ocean’s surface. I can just make out his pale face behind his mask now, hovering about ten feet above me as he peeks out from under the edge of the forest. He’s pausing too. Paddy had plopped into the surf this morning right alongside the temporary sign announcing that a white shark had been spotted here the previous day. Someone had to swim for the boat, which we had anchored in San Simeon cove. He’s the best boat operator among us, so he swam out and picked the rest of us up just beyond the breakers. There are times when Paddy’s brash confidence is unwarranted and infuriates me, but today it is a comfort. I do admire his ability to set aside fear, and sometimes rational thought, in order to get the immediate job done. For all his obnoxious red-headedness, Paddy is practical. He has a vast amount of diving experience over me, and I realize that I have been watching him to keep myself calm. Bravery isn’t always wise. I see him tuck the slate with his data sheets under his arm before we finish this transect. He’s getting ready to swim in a hurry. Now I know he’s scared too. Crap.
We’re surveying fish distributions in patches of kelp forest after they have been harvested. The Nature Conservancy owns the lease on this patch, and has contracted a kelp harvester to mow down about half of it after it has been surveyed once. It’s our job to count the fish that remain after the boat with the large blade-lined conveyor belt has sheared off the algae at around six feet deep and hauled it aboard. The kelp harvester will sell his haul to an abalone farm down the coast in Morro Bay, whose abalone will consume 20 tons or so in just a couple of days. We know that there won’t be any fish here. Fish like structure and that has all been sheared away. We have to swim this complete transect in order to be scientifically accurate and record the total lack of life in the remaining open water. The protocol is that Paddy swims his transect through the kelp at around 5 feet deep, while I swim my own at around 12 feet. I trail a little behind him so that my bubbles don’t scare off any fish that he should be counting. Paddy’s slate is tucked under his arm because he doesn’t plan to write anything. He’s just going to bolt through the rest of this transect line and roll up the meter tape when we’re back under the kelp. I might still see something worth counting at my depth, so I have to keep my data sheets ready. He looks down and gives me a shrug. It’s time to get moving.
Our circumstances race through my mind with the speed of a rotten dream. We’re in about 40 feet of water. Kelp only grows on rocky substrate. It is September. We are approximately 4 miles down coast from a thriving elephant seal colony. There are no other people using the waters near here for anything other than boating. We are wearing black wetsuits, with black fins, and black hoods. SCUBA gear is ungainly, slows your swimming, and makes you look awkward when you’re in a hurry. I look at the sunlight wrapping the edges of Paddy’s frame. We are both making silhouettes near the surface of the water. …Just like prey.
A flurry of bubbles marks the heaving sigh I release in preparation. Above me, Paddy blasts ahead from the concealing edge of the canopy, and we’re off. I hold my slate far in front of me in a futile effort to create an unnatural silhouette with a square front-end. The eerie cut-kelp tips point up past us looking like accusing dead fingers. I gash a hash mark where I have noticed a rockfish tucked against a kelp blade. The fish is doing a better job of not looking appetizing than I am. I fumble the scrawl that says the rockfish is about 8 inches, or 15 centimeters. Though I speak in the metric terms of science now, I still convert it back and forth in my head because it is a second language. My blood is up. I’m heaving my air. I see Paddy out ahead of me in the haze, as I lose speed to write. He nearly folds in half like a sea lion when he turns around and blazes past me faster than a pasty white guy underwater should ever be clocked in public. I still have to get to the finish line; you know, for science. I imagine black eyes and a Cadillac grill-worth of teeth rushing up from the gloom below. Memories of reading accounts in a crappy tourist book about people surviving tiger shark attacks by punching them in the snout roll through my head. Another rockfish. I slow again. I feel exposed for too long. Scrawl in my head injury prisoner writing. Kelp rockfish, 3 inches, about 7 and a half centimeters. I stupidly tell myself that I will fend off any oncoming white sharks with my slate, despite everything I know of the ocean since I read that idiotic shark attack book on the plane to Hawaii all those years ago. We’ve made it through the whole day without mulling over the reasons to justify panic in the water. Eating improvised sandwiches and wasabi peas isn’t enough to fuel the calories needed to keep warm in this water. We’re hungry, cold, and tired. Fatigue and freezing temperatures are addling our minds. Paddy is long tucked into the safety of the kelp forest canopy when I amble back to where we plan to surface with all of my limbs attached and low on air. I notice that Paddy has also not been torn limb from limb. I relax enough to pee in my suit again, but it is only warm for a second.
The fear we feel in this case is perfectly rational. It isn’t always warranted, but it can be justified here. Given what we know about the hunting practices of white sharks, it is a calculated risk for us to be diving in these particular conditions. We have entered a different food web. The sharks hunt near the coast, where there are few people and plenty of blubbery fat-rich seals around. They are visual ambush predators who attack from below in an attempt to kill prey with one heaving bite, then wait for it to bleed out before coming back to feed on it. They tend to hunt over rocky reef where their dark gunmetal-gray countershading hides them from eyes above. Their usual prey of seals and sea lions are smart, fast, warm-blooded animals, with claws and teeth. Sharks can’t outmaneuver or outsmart them in clear water, and they can’t afford to take a beating from the jagged canines of an elephant seal. Like many animals in the ocean, white sharks need a diet with high fat content. The lipids in blubber make a great stored energy source that sharks use to stock up their own reserves. They look up from below for an oblong silhouette with fins at the surface, and then rocket toward it to deliver a rapid bite. The “man in the gray suit” has evolved to be stealthy and overwhelmingly fast. We know we are putting ourselves in harm’s way when we conduct science underwater in these conditions. We’re not built to be here. It’s the realm of the kelp and the snails, the tube-snouts and the sharks. We’re just imitating food in it.
We wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is irrational is the bizarre entitlement that humans feel to be free of any and all harm when they decide to enter the ocean. The ocean is not a nice place. It is not a theme park. It is not a certified grade-A restaurant. It is not a children’s TV show, bouncing with smiling dolphins and friendly turtles. It is cold, it is powerful, and it is devastatingly beautiful. The fear we feel as divers is more akin to pragmatic awe than panic. We know that we are not adapted to thrive in this ecosystem; that we are guests. The neoprene, ungainly lead weight, and limited air supply are constant reminders that we don’t belong. We are lucky to be here in the first place. If any of us in fact were to see a white shark underwater, we would count ourselves very lucky indeed.
There simply aren’t that many of them.
Paddy has forgotten the top to his wetsuit. There is just no way to survive diving in 50-degree water with only his farmer John, and no hood. Kendra and I decide to partner up to go collect the Tuffies from the clips in the middle of kelp that is growing from a single holdfast. From the surface there is only a tuft of kelp growing over the marker buoy that was left here off of Lopez Point in Big Sur. The holdfast is attached to the anchor for the buoy and stands roughly 75 meters from the edge of this year’s growth of kelp forest. No one has seen this marker since last season, and we have only found it by pulling apart the kelp stipes to reveal the line that has become so tangled in a year’s surge that it has pulled the float beneath the surface. Somewhere in the middle of this mess are a few Tuffies clipped off to the buoy line. The convoluted surface area of the little orange and yellow plastic dish scrubs work great as collection devices for larval animals recruiting to the kelp forest from their early life floating in the plankton with the cold ocean currents.
I begin to strap on my gear as I think back over the bumpy half an hour that we spent in the inflatable Zodiac to get down coast from Big Creek to this spot. The slim ribbon of highway 1 clambers across the steep cliffs on it’s way to San Simeon in the distance. There are no cell phone towers here, not that any of us has a waterproof phone. The house on the UCSC reserve in the middle of the Big Sur coast is tucked under the other side of the creek entrance. There is no line of sight for the marine radios to work without plunging back up current in the boat for another 30 minutes before we would be able to radio anyone at all. We are exposed; almost a football field-length from the edge of the rest of the kelp forest. This is a very risky site. Should anyone be injured, we are far removed from even calling for help, which itself would be a very long time in getting to this remote and rugged coastline. There is so little kelp cover, that Kendra and I decide that we should immediately slip under the boat to use it as camouflage. We roll over the side and plunge in again. You know; for science. The visibility is only a few feet here. The gloom is unsettling, and the hairs on my neck spike in a way that is not at all from the cold.
There is a primal feeling that you get when a place is genuinely “sharky.” It is nothing like the cold fatigue that instigates a mild paranoid loop of self-torturing thoughts about being bitten while underwater. This is different. It is quiet; somewhat calm. It is an eerie knowing that somewhere near, is a formidable predator, and this time, it isn’t you. Shark accident victims that spend a lot of time in and on the water, and who are in tune with the nuances of the ocean, report a stillness of things preceding the encounter. The water itself is not moving different. Maybe the commotions of other animals are a little quieter. Maybe they are picking up on almost imperceptible natural cues. Whatever the case, there is a calm in your core that tells you beyond a doubt that the time has arrived to take your own survival very seriously. I have felt this before while diving off of Seaside to collect animals for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I backed up to a large boulder on the bottom until the feeling passed and I surfaced. Later that day an otter washed ashore in that same spot having been bit in half. I feel it now. I know.
I look up at Kendra just a few feet above me. The water here is thick with snotty green plankton, and I have a hard time even making out her silhouette. The current here is powerful. It is pulling the hefty kelp plant at a steep angle, which is why the top of it was so hard to see from the surface. We wrap ourselves around the whole plant. Kelp is not a true plant. It is algae, which is structurally different from true plants. It is able to stretch lengthwise under the huge tension from water currents and waves. We hardly add to that tension as we wrestle our way down the kelp in order to keep camouflaged and avoid being swept out in the open by the powerful current. I keep a grip on the mooring line in the middle of the mess of tangled kelp stipes. Trying to separate them in order to find the attached Tuffies, I keep loosing sight of the line. These little plastic dish sponges represent a tremendous amount of effort and money invested in this study. Loosing them would be costly, and there would be no way to get these data again. The California current has had poor production this year. What we find in these samples may yield important information regarding this remote part of the coast. I am focused. I know this is dangerous, specifically today.
I shimmy my way down the kelp looking for the clips which should have been attached to the mooring line at around 12 or 15 feet deep. I’m trying to hang on to the kelp and still avoid presenting my body as a silhouette from underneath. It is difficult to hang on, sort through the tough algae, and free up a hand to check my gear. The popping in my ears tells me I’ve gone too deep. My gauge is telling me 30 feet. Somehow I missed the Tuffies. I pause for a breath and reposition my grip to begin working my way back up. I don’t want to be down here any longer than I have to. I look over my shoulder at the odd angle the current is pulling me, in time to see the sizable bullet-shape of a harbor seal rocket right past me in an uncharacteristic hurry. The local mammals are afraid. The visibility is so low that it would be difficult to see prey from any distance here. The feeling stays with me. The hairs on my neck remain alert, and the secure feeling that there is a shark near stays firmly seated in my belly. I don’t drive myself crazy with paranoia. Here, I just know. I stick to my plan and continue using the kelp to obscure my form. I catch glimpses of Kendra’s fins through the murk. We can only operate in this gloom because we’re recovering samples and only need to see what is right in front of our faces. We would never run transects in this, since the visibility is much less than 2 meters.
My hand finally scrapes up the line into the Tuffies. I wrap my leg around the kelp to tangle myself in place so I can free up both hands to bag the samples. We need to seal the Tuffies in a plastic bag at the depth where they were clipped to the line to avoid contaminating them with organisms that may be in the water in a different part of the water column, or flushing out any tiny organisms that may have recruited to the Tuffies by swimming with them in the open water. Opening a Ziploc bag underwater with gloves on is difficult on a calm day. I’ve woven my legs into the kelp so that the current doesn’t pull me down the coast while I remove the Tuffies and put them into the bag. Bagged samples in hand, I keep myself wrapped around that plant and think skinny thoughts for the ascent. At the surface, I hand my samples to Paddy, and remove my weights and BC while keeping my body tucked under the Zodiac. An inflatable boat laden with heavy SCUBA gear and an outboard motor is admittedly, a whole different problem should it take a bite from a curious shark. At least it doesn’t look anything like food. Kendra and I slip back into the boat and begin looking over the samples. The 15 minutes it took to find a couple of expensive dish sponges felt like an eternity. My neck hairs finally relax as the sun peeks through the coastal fog on our slow bumpy ride back to Big Creek. There is something about a little sun that makes everything feel better.
I scan the horizon in vain for any sign of a large shark that my gut tells me must be near. I am a little sad to find none.
This is usually the part where educators ham-handedly delve into the sharks-are-just-misunderstood discussion. I’ll spare you that droll rant. It is no secret that we humans are the most formidable predator on land and in the sea. Like sharks, we have the capacity to maintain the health of the oceans, yet we can’t seem to find the perspective to balance our need for a functioning ocean (and we do need it), with our feelings toward the important predators with which we share the duty. What is our part in our relationship with sharks?
Indulge me next week in the idea that what we do not understand, is ourselves.