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September 20, 2005

Meeting the Sharks

I first encountered biologists Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson in my living room in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when I happened to see a BBC documentary called “The Great White Shark“. The film, directed by Paul Atkins, one of the world’s great wildlife cinematographers, blew my mind. At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. The water was black and turbulent, and two men were standing-not sitting-in a tiny boat, surrounded by at least four enormous great white sharks. Behind them, jagged rocks reared from the water looking like the fangs of a sea monster badly in need of dental work.

Where is this? I wondered. The Galapagos? Somewhere far off the coast of Africa? Another planet?

In fact, it was the Farallon Islands, a mere 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. That a large, stable population of adult (read: huge) great white sharks resides within the 415 area code comes as a surprise to most people – it certainly did to me. The great white shark is one of the ocean’s most elusive animals. So what were a pack of them doing here, not 30 miles from Macy’s in Union Square?

That question, and many others about white sharks, have been pondered by Anderson and Pyle for the past 15 years. By the mid-1980s, when their research project began, the Farallon scientists had already discovered that every fall, white sharks arrived at Southeast Farallon Island to hunt the seals and sea lions that lived on its shores. The sharks were clearly visible at times, and would often come in close to shore, their black dorsal fins shearing the water like knives.

During September, October, November, and early December, large blood slicks often appeared on the water, and headless seal carcasses were a common sight.

As winter approached, the attacks would dwindle, and by January the sharks were gone.

As I came to know Pyle and Anderson, I was often startled by their incredible powers of observation and intuition. Like many talented field biologists, they shared the ability to see almost imperceptible things-subtle patterns in the environment, nuances in animal behavior, even the scar pattern on the side of a great white as it cruised under their 17-foot research boat.

It was through years of just such meticulous observation that they determined this startling fact: To a large extent, it was the same sharks that were appearing every autumn. Over time, both men began to feel as though they were part of an aquatic neighborhood. When sharks they knew showed up year after year, it began to feel like an annual reunion.

“It’s unexpected to get on a personal level with the sharks,” Anderson said, describing how certain sharks have exhibited specific character traits. For instance, he and Pyle know that Cuttail, a 15-foot male, is feisty, and Whiteslash, an 18-foot female, is mellow, and likes to hang around the research boat. They know that Half Fin is goofy, and Gouge is aggressive, and Cal Ripfin is sneaky, and steals seal carcasses from other sharks.

But the most remarkable shark of all was a huge female named Stumpy. Stumpy was 19 feet long and weighed 4,000 pounds and when she was in residence, she ruled the place. Her hunting ground was a swath of sea on the island’s east side, near the main boat launching spot. For prey, this was not an advisable route onto shore. “No seal got by her,” Pyle said. And while other sharks would take 20 minutes or more to consume their kills, Stumpy could polish off a 500-pound seal in three minutes flat.

Actually knowing the individual sharks – their behaviors, their comings and goings, even their genders – enabled the scientists to write whole new chapters in the book about great white sharks. Interestingly, they’d observed that, while the male sharks returned annually, the females came back to the Farallones only every other year. Stumpy, for example, was spotted only during odd-numbered years. When I first visited the Farallones and heard about Stumpy, it happened to be an odd-numbered year. Might a sighting be possible? Anderson shook his head slowly, and told me that Stumpy’s distinctively cropped tail fin hadn’t been spotted for several years. She was such an extraordinary animal though, that no one had given up hope. But in the meantime, it didn’t seem likely that she was around; Stumpy had a distinctive presence. “If she was here,” Anderson told me, “we’d know it.”