THE  TOOTH  IS OUT THERE

Corey dives in to swim with sharks

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      You have to search hard to find anything resembling a silver lining in 9-11 -- unless your name is Gary Condit or your body sports a triangular dorsal fin.

      This time last year, headlines all screamed about Chandra Levy and the "summer of the sharks." Victims of the attacks, 50 worldwide by summer's end, included an 8-year-old Florida boy whose arm required reattaching. Three lost their lives.

      What made the sharks so suddenly ravenous? Or maybe they weren't and it was the news-starved media engaged in a feeding frenzy.

      Enough water has passed under the Vincent Thomas Bridge for an investigation by this chicken of the sea. I signed up with Team Shark, a Redondo Beach company that boats passengers into the open ocean, where they get to swim alongside sharks.

      "Sharks have gotten a bad rap," says John Manley, a shark biologist who co-founded Team Shark with Cerritos College oceanography professor Don Newman five years ago.

      "Sharks are important because they maintain a healthy balance to the ecosystem," says Manley, 36. "If you remove sharks, you've got a lot of problems. It's the same reason you want to keep the wolves in Yellowstone Park. Without them, the rabbits would go crazy."

      According to Manley, sharks are not even interested in humans but in fish and marine mammals. He says 90 percent of shark species will never even attack us.

      "They can't, they don't, they won't," he insists.

      Yet Manley admits that the remaining 10 percent includes blues and makos, both of which regularly approach our chartered boat, the Pacific Star. (Three years back, Manley saw a 12-foot great white, which circled the boat six times.)

      And he and Newman do require all passengers to sign a waiver absolving Team Shark should they suddenly become human sushi.

      "But there's no increased trend we see at all in shark attacks," he says, explaining that they remain at a stable 50 to 100 per year, with about a dozen deaths.

      "And there are 10 million attacks by people on sharks each year," he adds.

      Team Shark is the only local option for shark-watching with no underwater experience -- which is nearly more than I have. San Pedro-based Psalty V Adventures and Avalon-based Catalina Scuba Luv only take certified scuba divers on their shark swims. Team Shark features the only floating cage for snorkelers.

      The road to predation begins at 8 a.m., when we chug out of the Redondo Pier with 20 shark enthusiasts, including first-timer Kelly Hastert, who dragged her mom and cousin along.

      "I like being in the water and seeing animals," says the 20-year-old Diamond Bar resident.

      We're in for 11 hours out, which makes the full complement of bunk beds below deck seem like a good idea in theory. In practice, it's only good for those who can snooze on one end of a moving see-saw.

      "I AM starting to feel seasick," Hastert admits.

      "The water's pretty calm today," insists Manley, who likes to utter statements befitting his surname.

      Also aboard are some excellent victuals, a VCR/TV combo -- tied down to its shelf -- and a library of VHS tapes conspicuously lacking the one title requested on every Team Shark outing.

      "Most of us in the shark business don't really like 'Jaws,'" Manley says. "Peter Benchley (author of the novel on which it was based) doesn't even like it. He's gone on record saying he didn't like the way the movie demonized sharks."

      Manley says Steven Spielberg's 1975 directorial debut helped perpetuate false stereotypes that persist, encouraging shark hunting for sport.

      "The idea that sharks eat all the time isn't true," Manley says. "Great whites won't wade off a beach to get at a human. And they won't sink boats."

      Bull sharks have been known to ram boats; it's how they got their name. But they'll go away after one or two encounters, with their curiosity satisfied and their noggin throbbin'.

      No other movie has reversed the bad publicity, though many have reinforced it. In 1999's "Deep Blue Sea," the villain was a genetically engineered, giant mako fed live cow hors d'oeuvres by Betty White. In 2000's "A Perfect Storm," a regulation-sized mako came aboard to nosh on Mark Wahlberg. And it's not piranha in the pool that Dr. Evil hurls his nemeses into in "Austin Powers in Goldmember," released last month.

      "There's a false feeling from the public that sharks are so aggressive and voracious, that when you're in the water with one, you're lucky to get out alive," Manley says.

      After two hours Newman starts laying a trail of chum, which is a friendly way to say fish guts. He has 200 pounds of it, as well as six gallons of blood, more than required for a Jerry Bruckheimer epic. He begins pouring the red liquid from bleach-like containers.

      "You don't get this in Ralph's," he says. (But if you did, it would be on the aisle with the dusty foreign foods.)

      At the rear of the boat, deck hand Delsi Huntley, 20, of Fullerton, sparks up what she calls a "mako magnet." The electronic device broadcasts the precise frequency of an injured fish from underneath the waves. (It also approximates the sound of my stomach after Taco Bell.)

      Manley calls the passengers to attention. We are at our destination, five miles off Catalina and 20 from the mainland. It's a rise in the 2,000-foot sea floor called Avalon Banks or, as it's unofficially known, Shark Alley.

      "Sharks are considered godlike by many cultures," says Manley, beginning a ritual borrowed from native Tahitians. He sprinkles what he calls the Ashes of Pele on our outstretched palms. The contents come from a bath powder bottle.

      "Oh great shark god Tahua-Tahua," Manley says. "Bring us small-to-medium-sized sharks that don't scare away the other sharks."

      We simulatenously release the powder into the breeze.

      I can't tell whether Tahua-Tahua is sufficiently appeased, but he should at least feel refreshed after showering. The crew begins assembling the contraption that up to 8 of us will bob around in at a time. Unlike the cage in the movie that dare not speak its name, it's constructed of plastic, since metal generates electrical fields which confuse and anger the sharks.

      Even when it's not confused and angry, a shark can consume a 400-lb. meal in 10 bites of up to 50 lbs. each. That means my entire head could be eaten in just two or three bites. Manley actually has been bitten a few times.

      "Nibbled at," he corrects me. His last "nibble" occurred in November, during a remote segment for MTV starring model/actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.

      "I was hand-feeding 8 sharks," Manley says. "I was paying attention to one shark on my right and I felt a tug on my left. I looked over and the shark had my hand. It had fish oil and blood all over it, so the shark thought it was a meal."

      Or could the truth be that Manley, living up to his surname, was staring too hard at Rebecca Romijn, whose Stamos was back on land? (Since Manley's wife, Sue, is within earshot of this interview, enquiring minds will never know.)

      Regardless, Manley got a chance to redeem himself during the taping of an upcoming episode of TBS's hotly hyped new reality show "Worst Case Scenario," in which he took a woman entirely unmarried to John Stamos through a series of shark-fear challenges.

      The razor teeth of a shark angle backward into its mouth, so the deeper they sink, the more they ensnare prey. These teeth -- 30,000 of which are lost and replaced during the shark's life -- sit in a jaw not firmly joined to the skull, so it can jut forward to chomp.

      "Nibbling" is what girlfriends do to my ear. Manley was officially chomped upon. The teeth pierced his glove and drew blood.

      "Yeah, but if you're a fire-eater, you're gonna get your lips singed every now and then," he says.

      Manley says those in danger of shark attack should "gouge at their eyes and hit their snout" to scare them off.

      "But no one inside the cage is in danger," he explains, "unless you stick your fingers out to feed the sharks."

      Of course, me being me, that is precisely my plan. You don't hang-glide only 10 feet over the ground. You don't take a Harley-Davidson ride in a sidecar. You don't parachute attached to someone else.

      OK, so I did all those things. But that was the old Corey. The new one has a secret can of sardines wedged into the ankle of his wet suit, with which I intend to up the danger quotient of this mission.

      Newman swims around the boat with some mackerel. More than an hour after we have cut the engines, there are still no sharks. There are plenty of seagulls. But Manley says that, contrary to common sense, the presence of birds is not an indication that sharks aren't around.

      Just as I suggest a name change to Team Seagull, someone yells, "Blue!"

      It's off our starboard side, or maybe stern ...

      It's off one of our damn sides. But there's no time for me to check it out. I pull the wet suit zipper up my chest and dash for the cage, grabbing a snorkel.

      One problem: the zipper goes in the back. I must now completely reverse the wet suit.

      "Nice fit!" says Manley, cracking up.

      Flopping around like a freshly bagged sea bass in the galley, I manage to successfully molt and bolt for the water. It is chilling, about 70 degrees, and surprisingly blue under its gray surface. Visibility is at least 65 feet, since I can see the front end of the boat. But there isn't anything to see except boat.

      I frantically scan for the blue shark last seen 10 minutes ago, the "Jaws" violin bowing through my brain. There's plenty of blue, but no shark.

      Having never snorkeled before, I have no idea how deep my head can go before water fills the little yellow tube and my lungs. But I find out at least four times.

      One by one my shipmates file in and out as either their recommended 15 minutes expire, or they grow tired at looking at nothing. 

      "You can come out now," says Huntley. "We'll tell you when we see something."

      But I have a shark encounter to document for my readers. I remain in a corner of the cage, choking and shivering as my exposed body parts turn the color of yellowtail sushi.

      I should be an attractive morsel to a shark. Being a vegetarian puts me lower on the food chain than ordinary humans.

      "Actually, you'd taste like a really emaciated seal," Manley told me earlier. "They're going after large animals with a lot of blubber, which is a high energy source for them."

      Manley would probably make better bait because ... um... Well, I have permission to officially describe him as "barrel-chested." But he's staying out of the water today due to a bad back.

      It is now close to 30 minutes since I entered the water and the only fin I have seen today is on a classic car in the parking lot back at the pier. Maybe the sharks are being frightened away by a bigger shark. I look east and west for my Moby Dick.

      "Look toward the chum trail," Manley says. "That's where they're likely to come from."

      I look skyward, pleading with Tahua-Tahua.

      Enough of this. It's time for the secret sardines. I rip the lid off the can and wave the contents around. If there are any sharks in the immediate area, they are now about to come to papa.

      "Where did you get that?" asks Huntley. She's amused, not upset.

      "My ankle," I responded. The rectangular pink mark on my skin would remind of this fact for three more hours.

      "You know we have a Chum Master hanging below the cage, right?"

      Encased in a giant colander beneath me are dozens of pounds of shredded mackerel and leftovers from the tri-tip steak served for lunch. As a comparative attractant, my sardines would be like Janet Reno guest-starring on "Baywatch Hawaii."

      All the excitement of trying to hide my forbidden plan beneath the waves has filled my lungs with a fifth rush of seawater. I tear the mask off to breathe and gag.

      (Three days later, the significance of all the gulping hits me, along with a 100-degree fever. I had been imbibing fish blood all day. "I'm speechless," said my doctor. "What were you thinking?" For one thing, I am thinking that I no longer qualify as a vegetarian.)

      Past the half-hour mark, my body might as well be floating on a piece of wood with Kate Winslet in "Titanic."

      My great white hope lost, I enlist Huntley's help out of the cage and beat a shaky path to the galley, where the fish stories have begun -- of dives deeper than the recent Dow Jones Industrial Average, during which the crew saw and battled goliath makos.

      Through a voice trembling like Katherine Hepburn's from cold, I wonder aloud why, after shark-watching for 11 hours, I have still only seen them from behind aquarium glass or a movie screen.

      "It's the luck of the draw," says Manley. "On rare occasions we get skunked. But at least we saw two today."

      Two?

      "A mako was actually underneath you while you were in the cage," Manley says. "Don was out there, he saw it."

      Newman nods, adding that I may not have seen it because "makos don't hang around long."

      Maybe I'm not good at detecting makos, but my bull shark detector was needling the red. This sounds like one of their fish stories.

      "It was obviously operator error if you didn't see it," Manley says.

      "Did you see the giant squid down there, too?" Newman asks.

      Manley then gets serious. 

      "The bottom line is that it's related to the decline of the shark population due to overfishing," he says. "Twenty years ago you could see sharks in the dozens out here."

      Perhaps another problem is that there is no Tahitian shark god called Tahua-Tahua. There's a town in Honduras and a local Chilean plant species that go by the name, but the correct god to have prayed to would have been Moho, older brother of Pele, the goddess of fire. (Do you Yahoo?)

      "The problem is probably related to you," Manley says. "Ninety percent of the time, we see plenty of sharks. It's only when we take reporters from the Daily Breeze out that we don't."

      Manley's wife, Sue, tosses me a sweatshirt and a towel to shower. Newman hands me a beer and calls it a bribe to embellish what I saw.

      "It's unfortunate, but this is a rare event in Team Shark history," says Manley. "If you want, we could send you some pictures of sharks you can put in your article."

 

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