Eye to eye

Words and Photographs by Yara Laufer

190 miles and a 20-hour boat ride from the coast of Mexico lies Guadalupe Island. It is home to more than 380 identified great white sharks, the most feared apex predator of the oceans…

The research boat departs from Ensenada in Baja California. It’s still dark outside. We are told that we would arrive at our destination the next day for sunset. Only one night left. A presentation on shark identification and behaviour is followed by a night of vivid nightmares of sharks targeting humans, lurking in the darkness just waiting for their chance to attack.

6 am, alarm goes off, wetsuit on. It’s still dark when the lures of tuna heads are launched and excitement spreads through the group. It is quiet, maybe a little too quiet. Suddenly, the surface of the water, which had been so calm and peaceful, splits and a huge fin appears.

We get a sign to enter the cage and immerse ourselves in the dark blue. The slower the steps down, the faster the heartbeat. Three deep breaths through the regulator and there he is. Eye to eye with great white sharks.

In that moment I could feel everything; fear, respect, panic. But the only thing I really feel is at peace.

The feeling of being in total harmony with nature and my environment is overwhelming. I feel the exact opposite of what people think you should feel when meeting the most charismatic shark on the planet. I am only a few metres away from the most powerful predator of our oceans but all I feel is calmness.

I keep asking myself if I’m really here. The same person who five years ago would not even touch the ocean with the toes for fear of the infinite unknown and its creatures. Back then, even the smallest fish appeared like a great white shark to me. And now, five years later, I am a diving instructor, meeting a great white shark.

When I was offered the opportunity to go on an expedition on a research boat to Guadalupe Island, I simply could not refuse. How often in life do you get the chance to see these creatures so often described by the media as cold-blooded killers in real life and experience their behaviour and appearance firsthand?

The great white shark still remains a mystery to scientists. Nobody knows exactly how many individuals move around in our oceans, which routes they follow, at what age they become sexually mature, not to mention how old they can become. The only well-known things are the bloodthirsty scenes from movies and the deadly smile before it snaps its prey. And here I find myself in the water with this feared creature. A species that last year resulted in 13 fatal accidents with humans. In contrast, my species recorded more than 100,000,000 kills of sharks and I do not believe that these accidents were due to confusion. Slowly I am beginning to realise that it is not the great white shark that is the unpredictable killer among us.

To better understand their behaviour and educate and overcome misconceptions, we study their habits, examine the animals for external injuries from ships, fishing nets or bites from other sharks, and take pictures to identify the animals by their patterns. Many of the animals return to Guadalupe Island every year, so they can be tagged and tracked, but new animals also keep arriving and sharks that came back every year may suddenly disappear. Therefore every evening we compare the captured images to check whether it is a new shark or one that has already been identified. The research expeditions help to expand the database and to collect further important scientific knowledge.

However, it seems that the education and positive experience of each participant and shark enthusiast is just as important as the collection of scientific data. To see how fear turned into fascination and how everyone left the cage with a huge smile – a movie should be made about that. In just four days we saw more than 50 different great white sharks and not a single one made an attempt to come close or even attack. They calmly circled us once, only to realise that we were not part of their food chain and disappeared back into the dark blue. Exactly, we humans don’t taste that good.

Despite this, there is a small number of shark attacks every year. But only a few end fatally because it is usually a case of a misidentification where the shark tries to take a ‘test bite’ of its prey. Of course, this is a tragic and fatal confusion, but to put this in perspective, Stanford University published a study that only one shark attack occurs for every 738,000,000 beach visits. Everyday people swim and surf just a few metres away from sharks without even realising it.

So far out in the open ocean, 190 miles away from my natural habitat, the memories of my first dive with bull sharks come flooding back to me. I remember that these animals showed no signs of aggression towards humans. Because if they live in an intact ecosystem and their food and habitat are secure, why would they? Sharks maintain the balance in our oceans, but what happens when we, the humans, disturb this balance, invade their habitat, fish away their food and displace them?

Since 2005 Guadalupe Island is a biosphere reserve, which ensures the protection of the animals through a set of regulations. The great white sharks and their habitat are respected, distance is kept, safety precautions are taken to avoid collisions and they are not fed in order not to inculcate a link between humans and feeding.

Every dive and encounter with marine life brings me a little closer to our oceans. My own transformation always shows me how fears can arise from a lack of knowledge and education and how they can influence our beliefs and perceptions. Therefore, it is even more important for me to face my feelings and thought patterns and to critically question them for their correctness. Today, the image of grinning great white sharks that made me shudder has been replaced with one of a peaceful creature that is in dire need of our help. My own transformation makes me smile, makes me proud, but most of all it motivates me to share my stories. They are a way to inspire other people and make them question things, with the hope to increase scientific as well as emotional knowledge about our oceans and their inhabitants.