First Person

‘My heart stopped’: An Indian shark anthropologist writes about his encounter with a Great White

‘She was not a monster, she was energy.’

Suspended in the liminality of dream and awakening, abyss and light, I bob up and down in frigid waters, cocooned in a cage 300 feet from an uninhabited island called Edward, 1,600 km from Antarctica, and 12,000 km from what was once my home – Kolkata.

Scuba means “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”. Indeed, it cages you in your sensations and illusions, especially if you are trapped in a four-by-eight-foot cage, alone. A cage that is attached to the back of a boat, The Southern-isles, owned and operated by Shark Experience Bluff, New Zealand. It lies submerged in the waters where the Tasman Sea and Southern Ocean meet, with just the top hatch reaching for the sun.

Even if you are just five feet away from the surface and the other humans on a boat, you are isolated from the rest of the familiar universe. All you can perceive are the ethereal images created by your demons and fantasies intertwined with what lies 30 feet in front of and below you, and the things that lay unseen beyond. These images play hide and seek with the throbbing streaks of light penetrating the turquoise blue. As depth increases, light decreases, and so do colour and contours. Only grey, green, black and silver forms seem to be created and dispersed at the ocean floor from here.

Call of duty

I am India’s only shark anthropologist, and possibly one of two or three in the world. For my fieldwork I had been based in 2016 for months in Bluff, the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand. A small, rustic town embraced by the sheltering Bluff hills from the unkind westerly winds, its community is famous for oysters, sea urchin, and hearty laughter. Known as the Pearl of the South, Europeans settled here in 1823, and left their indelible mark, my most favourite being an untuned piano from the late 1800 that I discovered in a fisherman’s garage.

Off the coast of Bluff is Foveaux Strait – one of the most treacherous straits of water in the world. These icy waters are home to Great White sharks, and I had been coming out with Mike Haines and his team of Shark Experience, to be a participant observer in their cage diving practice in these moody waters.

Being the largest predatory fish in the planet, white sharks or Mangō taniwha, are the apex predator of the marine environment, and their loss would have drastic impact on the trophic levels, and the delicate balance in the marine ecosystem. Over the last few decades their global numbers have decreased at an alarming rate. Consequently, they are now in the list of vulnerable species. The best estimation we have is that there are only about 3,500 sharks left in the entire ocean, hunted for their liver, skin, and their famous jaws, and as trophy to compensate male ego.

However, even though there is public interest in conservation of other marine megafaunas such as whales, which are considered to be cute and closer to human sensibilities, there is not as much interest in the menacing sharks, especially the poster child of all sharks – the Great White. Most political and social scientists believe that to create and sustain legislation for protecting them, they need to be demystified through direct encounter. Considering that there are currently no white sharks in captivity, the only avenue of direct encounter is through cage diving.

As a shark anthropologist, I explore the life created in the intersection of humans and sharks, and challenge human exceptionalism in classical ethnographic investigation. Humans and sharks share a complex relationship, defined by cohabitation and, of late, conflict. With no frills and no funding, the research manifested through my obsession with sharks and the fear of a world without them, the help of my friend and research assistant Soosie Lucas (who was fighting for her life in a hospital bed while I was in the field), and the support of Piers Locke and the Department of Anthropology, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

This is a multidisciplinary research which explores an aquatic contact zone in the form of a cage, where two sentient species whose lives and oceanscapes are often intertwined in similar political, social, economic, and ecological assemblages, encounter each other, and the global dialogue around the image creation of the white shark.

A rough ride

The day before the dive, we had to get back in winds of 40 knots and 15-foot waves. The rain and wind blasted through, as the boat gashed across the waters, tilting from side to side at 20 knots. The abyss became a turbulent vertical wall beside the window, and every exaggerated tilt made an untrained sea man like me fear the cold embrace. A few customers who had come out with us were throwing up on the deck, and as a member of the crew I had to make sure they did not fall overboard from a rogue wave.

At the end of the day, I got back, shivering and frozen, to my 150-year-old cottage that I was sharing with a family of rats and a half-blind Irish setter called Milly. As I walked in through the tin door, the smell of salt water, rancid tuna, puke, the southern winds, and the wet smudged cigar I had been miserly smoking for about a month, permeated across.

Leaving those memories behind, during the dive, I looked at my wrist dive computer – I had been underwater for 40 minutes, just standing and waiting in 11.3-degree water. My 5-millimetre neoprene suite was no longer keeping me warm. Like shards of glass, the drops captured minute newfound air pockets every once in a while. I cleared the water out of my mask with forced air from my nose, and bit hard on my regulator. I felt the sharp edge of the aluminum cage through my suit, crouched down to get my balance, and controlled my buoyancy with my breathing.

We had heard of her presence a few weeks before. A mature female Great White shark, she has been spotted in the region by fishermen, but we had not seen her yet. I looked up to the ocean surface as a decomposing tuna head meant to entice her shivered with the waves on the end of a rope. I saw some Trumpeter and Wrasse fish nibbling on it, and the flippers of an albatross, who was having a go at it too.

The shark appears

Suddenly, the Wrasse disappeared. There was no living thing in front of me. Just the sound of my intermittent bubbles, my weight belt banging on the back of the cage in a rhythmic drumroll, and the crackling and twisting of the nuts and bolts fighting with the currents, trying to keep the cage attached to the boat. Her absence frightened me, as my heart rate began to rise. I looked for her through all the four windows of the cage. Behind me, I could see the large propeller and the moss dancing on the hull of the boat. I looked below the cage and suddenly, the ocean floor seemed darker for a moment – then again, there was nothing. I waited.

I knew my time was almost up – a storm had been forecast – when, suddenly, through my peripheral vision I felt someone watching me. I turned and saw a pair of deep blue eyes larger than tennis balls looking back at me. For a moment, everything was quiet – no bubbles, no rattling of the cage. As if my heart had stopped, as had the waves. A 16-foot Great White shark, Carcharodon carcharias, was passing eight inches in front of my cage. Her eyes were focused on me. I could see the small pores in her snout, the Ampullae of Lorenzini. Her fine teeth didn’t show, as she moved ever so gently and effortlessly, owning and releasing at her own will the shadows which hid her.

Then she turned and came towards me, and the sensations came flooding back, my entire being started to give in. She approached and slowly touched the cage. The cage trembled. I had felt smaller sharks rattle our entire boat with one bump, so her approach was gentle indeed. She was not a monster, she was energy. She had nothing to prove, and this was her way of understanding her environment.

As she grazed against the cage, I could see an intense, claustrophobic abyss inside her mouth, and her white triangular serrated teeth bejewelled the entrance. Transfixed, I looked at every inch of her body pass in front of me, and then below the cage. That close, I realised truly how big 16 feet is. Her girth was about four feet – half the size of the cage – and as I saw her dark bronze skin pass beneath me, it was like waiting for a freight train to pass.

I looked at her iridescent skin, made out of millions of teeth-like small structures, as she glimmered in the sparkle of the light reflected from my metal cage. Her body was curved out of bold, broad brushstrokes, from her cone-shaped snout to her three-foot tall dorsal fin, and never-ending tail. She appeared to be moulded out of porcelain, but forged out of steel, as each strain of muscle poured out of her skin. This was a design that had been perfected over at least a 100 million years and watching her was a reality that did not even allow suspension of disbelief for this poor Indian shark anthropologist.

All of a sudden, on a whim, she looked towards the open ocean, flicked her immense tail, and was gone. And I kept on bobbing, as my weight belt kept banging on the cage. I had been underwater for 56 minutes and I knew hyperthermia might set in soon, and so would the storm. I had to go.

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