Alarm goes off, 4 a.m. Oh, lord. Check the weather, it’s good. Today’s work at the Farallones will be a go. Haul out of house and drive an hour-plus to the dock. Load gear onto the Deric M. Baylis in time to be underway at 6. Travel time across 27 miles of choppy sea, three hours. Spend it productively: asleep in a bunk down below.
When the 65-foot cutter slows near the islands, rouse and refuel with caffeine, bagels. Don safety gear and step into Stacey, a skiff launched off the stern.
Thus Scot Anderson begins a daylong drift, his eyes alert to traces on the water, his ears to signals from the electronic equipment he carries. With his research partner Sal Jorgensen, from Monterey Bay Aquarium, he is seeking one of the ocean’s most compelling creatures, the white shark. This is Scot’s study species and a focal point of his life’s work.
As an apex predator, the white shark is essential to the marine food web, but knowledge of its status and habits has remained elusive. Efforts like today’s are changing that.
With the Baylis keeping watch at a distance, Stacey is small enough to avoid deterring the quarry. The two researchers float a decoy on the water—a piece of carpet cut in the silhouette of a seal. (In the past they have tried large pool toys. The inflated lobster worked best—evidently seal-shaped, to a shark.)
When a shark nears, Scot and Sal take quiet action. They snap photos above and below the surface and read signals from small acoustic tags that some sharks wear. They can recognize individuals by the unique marks on their dorsal fins and from beeps the tags transmit. Rarely, they place a new tag: when a shark drifts slowly alongside the skiff, Scot can use a long pole to expertly dart its topside.
Among Scot’s discoveries to date is the fact that certain sharks show up at the Farallones every fall. The local club is comprised of big adult males, some that have been returning for 20 or more years. Other ocean patches, like Año Nuevo and Tomales Point, are seasonal homes for different groups.
For Scot, this work began with an “aha” moment, in 1987. That fall, he had a chance to work on the Farallones, banding songbirds as a volunteer for Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue Conservation Science). One day he noticed movement in the water not far offshore. Gulls were congregating over a splotch on the sea, evidence that a pinniped was becoming a meal for a shark. “That’s great!” he was told. “But it’s highly unusual, so don’t expect to see it again.” Yet in the space of two weeks, he counted 10 shark attacks. He had an eye for such things.
“The skill set came from fishing,” he reflects. “I grew up in Tiburon, and spent most of my boyhood fishing from shore in San Francisco Bay. Now, a movement at the surface or a white patch in the water can be a clue to a shark.” Polarized sunglasses are stock in trade for such detection.
His fascination earned him the nickname “Sharkman” and the chance to watch sharks intensively—first from the Farallon lighthouse, later from his own boat with an assistant. One of his goals was to describe white sharks’ hunting behavior. Scot learned that a shark stays near the bottom, looking up. When a mid-sized seal passes through the area, the shark strikes from below, then waits for its prey to succumb. It eats bite by bite; in three to 10 bites the seal is gone. Feeding can be quite tranquil—unless there’s another shark nearby.
“The study of white sharks is never-ending,” Scot says. “Each answer leads to another question.”
His current effort to document individual animals is part of a huge collaboration called GTOPP, for Global Tagging Of Pelagic Predators. The aim is to chart which areas in the world are vital to big marine species, from whales to sea turtles to sharks.
Scot’s knowledge of ocean life is more intimate and local. His second study site is a small patch near Tomales Point, where he teams up with biologist Paul Kanive. They launch a skiff in Inverness, motor north and take up position just outside the mouth of Tomales Bay to try and detect sharks. “People think this sounds like fun, but actually it’s not that easy,” Scot says. “We always put safety first, but sitting out there in a little boat for hours is uncomfortable. If we sight any sharks, it’s usually only for two or three minutes, and long days can go by when we don’t detect any animals. Some of the regular sharks up there have ‘shark smarts’—they ignore us.”
Yet the appeal of this great and ancient marine predator is endless. “I’ve seen plenty of white sharks already,” he says. “But when you do see one, it feels like a privilege, not a danger. I’m still in awe of how they move through the water—without any splash, so smooth and silent—really beautiful.”
Claire Peaslee is a naturalist, writer and improviser exploring ways that people learn from the living world.