Farallon Feud

When scientists at the national marine sanctuary tried to kill Lawrence Groth's ecotourism business, the captain bit back. That's when things really got mean.

Sunrise on the San Francisco Bay this morning was clear and bright, but here, 25 miles off the coast, the fog is so thick that you can’t even make out the turd-encrusted drip-castle rocks that make up the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. There’s no question about their proximity, though. The acrid stench of animal waste wafts on the breeze, and the barking of seals echoes through the mist from nearby islands.

Lawrence Groth stands at the stern of his 32-foot dive boat, the Patriot, his arms grappling a cage of aluminum bars twice his height and as wide as he is tall. He and his crewman, James Moskito, rotate the cage so it hangs off the back of the boat and then drop it into the water. Sealed PVC pipes attached to its sides provide flotation for the homemade cell as its lid bobs just above the surface. Groth lifts the lid of the cage and beckons a media landlubber to the dive platform.

Plunging into the cage deals an icy shock to the senses, and despite the scuba regulator and wet suit, it’s nearly impossible to breathe normally — the air comes in shallow pants, each breath a struggle.

It takes a minute or two to become used to the frigid water and get down to the serious business of doing a whole lot of nothing. There’s little to see. The water is a mesmerizing emerald green, completely devoid of activity. The only movement comes from the yellow nylon lines that zigzag across the silvery surface. At the end of these ropes, a broken surfboard and a homemade decoy both gouged with bite marks bob in the current. Every few minutes Groth and Moskito drag them back toward the boat, and then let the boards drift slowly back into place like giant fishing lures.

Which is precisely what they are. With any luck, these decoys will catch the unblinking black eye of humanity’s most feared predator, a great white shark. And then, perhaps, this perfectly evolved killer will attack the decoy, swimming close enough to give a nervous cage-dweller an up-close and personal view of her expressionless prehistoric snout, sleek gray flank, and rows upon rows of jagged teeth.

Alone in the cold, eight feet below the surface, I feel like bait.

The Farallones, a cluster of small, rocky islands visible from Stinson Beach on a clear day, are among the best places in the United States to see and film great whites because, from a shark’s perspective, they amount to an oversize all-you-can-eat buffet.

At high tide, elephant seals and harbor seals are ousted from their favorite rocks and reluctantly slide into the water. Every so often, from far below, a great white will spot the bulbous profile of a young seal and propel itself from the depths, wrapping its powerful jaws around the unsuspecting mammal and tearing flesh from bone in a sudden slick of red. Documentaries that incorporate footage of these ferocious feeding events, such as the Emmy-winning BBC/National Geographic feature Great White Shark and the Discovery Channel’s Beyond the Jaws, have made the Farallones a focal point for shark junkies.

Groth, a professional diver who works on underwater construction projects, has been fascinated by sharks since childhood. Growing up in Hayward, he’d long heard stories about white sharks in the Gulf of the Farallones, but he didn’t venture there until just a few years ago.

In the fall of 1998, he brought a boat and a few friends out to the islands, where he chummed the water with tuna (something he no longer does) in the hope of attracting a shark. After throwing the fish overboard, he stood at the stern waiting for a friend to bring him a camera. That’s when it happened: Without warning, a massive shark breached just half a dozen feet from the boat, hurling itself out of the water like a dolphin at SeaWorld. The great animal splashed down with such force that Groth’s pants got soaked. And from that moment, he was hooked.

These days, he’s Captain Lawrence Groth. Having recognized the commercial possibilities of satisfying people’s curiosity about the mysterious predators, he and a partner created what has become a thriving ecotourism business. He charges people $775 a head to spend the day on his boat in search of great whites. The captain, who now runs the operation solo, doesn’t guarantee that his clients will see a shark, but he does boast that great whites were spotted on 31 of his 34 trips during last fall’s feeding season, which lasts from mid-September through mid-November.

What Groth didn’t realize when he first started bringing customers out to the Gulf of the Farallones was that he was stepping on somebody else’s pelagic turf.

The entrepreneur was handily beaten to the archipelago by Peter Pyle, a Swarthmore College zoology major who in 1980 began studying the islands’ bird population for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a private nonprofit that manages the Farallones under the supervision of the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. While traversing the rocky coastline of Southeast Farallon Island, the young field biologist began noticing the same extraordinary spectacle over and over: a slick of blood in the water, followed by a swirl of dorsal fins, and great white sharks as long as eighteen feet thrashing about.

It was love at first bite. Before long, Pyle — now 45 and still a staff biologist for the observatory — was devoting much of his time to observing sharks, although he continues to study birds. In 1987, he picked up a research partner named Scot Anderson, who came to the Farallones as a volunteer to help band birds. At the time, Anderson, who has studied marine biology and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, was doing seasonal work helping the California Department of Forestry battle Dutch elm disease.

Watching the sharks feed from the safety of the rocks as Pyle had once done, Anderson, too, became intrigued. He stayed on to help monitor the shark feeding events and soon began working closely with Pyle. Through their longtime collaboration, the two have produced important data on shark behavior, published papers in respected scientific journals such as Nature, worked with some of the world’s foremost shark researchers, and been featured in documentary films. They’d been working undisturbed at the marine sanctuary for more than a decade when Lawrence Groth showed up with his cage and his customers.

The result has been a Farallon Feud between science and ecotourism in which the researchers, claiming Groth’s operation disturbs the sharks, have tried to get it shut down. The captain, in turn, has filed complaints against the researchers, accusing them of doing much the same thing — and worse — in the name of science. Groth, in fact, has upped the ante, claiming the scientists and the Bird Observatory have abused their stewardship status at the refuge by violating its rules and essentially selling access to the islands.

Neither side has yet prevailed. And so many a calm Farallon afternoon plays witness to the uneasy scene of Groth and the researchers bobbing in the water a mere few hundred feet apart, video cameras at the ready to record any transgression — their mutual dislike as palpable as the animal waste on the breeze.

During great white season, Lawrence Groth leaves Fortman Marina in Alameda before dawn and zips across the water in search of sharks. But he’s no weathered and bent Ahab. The 37-year-old captain is energetic and fit and smiles a lot from behind his moustache. And like most of those drawn to this violent predator, he is obsessed.

Sitting at the wheel, glancing back at the decoy dragging off the stern, Groth explains his fascination. “To make eye contact with an animal like that is an incredible feeling. Once you do it, then you understand. You can see one coming, staring at you, it goes by, and BOOM!” he exclaims, framing his head with his hands as though looking through a tube. “It’s locked on you. It is an incredible feeling to be face to face with something like that. You get an adrenaline rush, all that fear and everything.”

Though their motives are clearly different, Pyle and Anderson profess their respect for the animal in similar terms. And although they don’t use dive cages, they get close to the sharks far more often than Groth does.

During feeding season, the researchers and a handful of interns and volunteers assisting them swap shifts in the lighthouse perched on the craggy mountain of Southeast Farallon Island, the only inhabited rock of the bunch. When a lookout spots the telltale slick of blood across the water’s surface, Anderson and Pyle race to the spot in their sixteen-foot Boston Whaler. “I’m still in awe of white sharks,” Anderson says. “Their presence can’t be described well. They are silent, and when they swim by they are large and girthy. They are always looking at you; they are looking at everything. If you see it, it sees you.”

“Seeing it” is key to Anderson’s work. Since 1993, the scientist has been filming sharks as they feed. The researchers park right on top of the frenzy, and Anderson gets his footage using an underwater video camera mounted on a “chicken pole” that he plunges into the water. Such close proximity is needed, he says, in order to get clear shots. With those close-ups, the scientists can discern individual sharks by their unique markings and scars, and can track year to year which ones appear at the island and which are missing. With this information, they can begin to develop a picture of the shark population and its fluctuations.

John McCosker, a well-known shark biologist and senior scientist with the California Academy of Sciences, calls this work groundbreaking. Anderson, he notes, is creating the first long-term visual record of sharks in a defined area. He is starting to learn which sharks return often over time and which stay away, as well as other behavior patterns such as lengthy migrations that had been previously undocumented. The pair’s video record, satellite tagging, and experiments with decoys may help with the recovery and management of the species — and may even help surfers better protect themselves from attacks, McCosker says. The better we understand the species and what lures it to the surface, the better we can avoid getting bitten.

The studies are similar to those conducted with marine mammals such as killer whales in Puget Sound. The difference, however, is that sharks, unlike orcas, have no need to surface for air — the only way to film them is to either lure them up with the promise of prey, or to catch them feeding at the surface.

The idea of ecotourists getting too close to their sharks, however, rankled the scientists. Ironically enough, they fired the first shot over Groth’s bow, following what the captain describes as an attempt by him and his former partner Pat Douglas to make nice.

In November 2000, the ecotour operators went out to the Farallones to meet with Pyle and Anderson. Groth says his intention was to work cooperatively with the scientists and ensure that his operation didn’t interfere with their projects. He says he offered to keep his distance on days when Anderson and Pyle were tagging sharks. Groth was also interested, he says, in sharing his own video footage from the cage, and was willing to donate $20,000 to help the researchers buy the pricey satellite “pop-up” tags — a financial drain on the research program at about $3,500 a pop. It was an attempt to extend an olive branch, Groth says.

Anderson recalls the meeting differently. “The whole premise was inappropriate to start with. They wanted to work with us exclusively to have us show them where the sharks are,” he says. Groth, the biologist notes, wanted an exclusive arrangement in an effort to stave off competition from would-be rivals. Anderson bristled at the proposal. “The reality is we don’t need their money or their resources,” he says. “We don’t need their boat or their clientele. Everything came with a price. They are completely hollow people.”

Five months after that meeting, Anderson and Pyle made a formal request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), the federal agency that manages the sanctuary waters, asking officials to closely regulate cage diving and ban the use of decoys for commercial operations. Such changes would in effect shut Groth down. Indeed, this seemed to be the intent, since the researchers believed the captain was interfering with shark behavior.

Groth felt betrayed. “They just don’t want anyone else out there,” he huffs. “They consider it their island. They had no real explanation of how we were interfering with their research. On the contrary, they are the ones interfering with the sharks.”

His livelihood threatened, the captain bit back. He filed a complaint with the California Department of Fish and Game, the agency charged with enforcing state laws protecting great whites, in which he claimed to have seen the researchers running over sharks more than once in their effort to get footage. His complaint was backed up by a videotape shot from the deck of the Patriot.

Anderson and Pyle say they have never hit a shark in all their years of pulling up on feeding events, but they admit that sharks may inadvertently hit the boat. The problem, Groth points out, is that even with the best intentions it’s hard to avoid the sharks, which is one of the reasons the captain says he stays at least one hundred feet away from the feeding events. The ocean current is moving the boat, the carcass, and the sharks as they battle for their food. Groth has also videotaped the researchers pursuing sharks as they swim away from the group with food, and claims he’s witnessed the animals pursued to the point where they drop the prey and swim away.

Anderson admits he’s followed sharks that are carrying prey but says he backs off if it ever looks like he’s affecting their ability to feed. He also points out that because his sixteen-foot Whaler is smaller than most of the white sharks found at the Farallones, it has no impact on the feedings.

Peter Klimley would argue otherwise. A respected shark researcher and adjunct associate professor of wildlife conservation biology at UC Davis, he has worked with Pyle and Anderson in the past and has some serious reservations about their data-gathering approach.

In Klimley’s view, the best data-gathering techniques are those with the least impact on the animal. He’s talking about remote sensors and radio tags, which are different from the type used by Anderson and Pyle. With this equipment, scientists can track the sharks as they move through a specific area, monitoring the animals’ activity without interacting with them. It creates a much more accurate picture of their behavior, says the scientist. “If you get the boat near a shark feeding event, you are affecting the whole combat of how food is apportioned,” Klimley says. “Any time you study an animal, you have an impact. If you drive the boat in there you are suddenly intruding.

“Often sharks will splash water at the boat,” he continues, referring to one of the ways sharks determine hierarchy during feedings. “You become a rival shark, and that shark might not finish off the carcass because you are there.”

Neither Groth nor his rivals, however, have been winners in the game of complaint and counter-complaint. California Fish and Game conducted an informal investigation in response to Groth’s filing, but it has taken no action. Dennis Davenport, the patrol captain with the agency’s Fort Bragg marine region, says he wasn’t able to determine, based on Groth’s tapes, whether Pyle or Anderson had indeed harmed any sharks with their boat. NOAA, likewise, has shelved the researchers’ request, opting instead to take up the cage-diving issue in its overall sanctuary management plan, which the federal agency expects to complete in 2004.

Nevertheless, Anderson and Pyle may wish they’d let sleeping sharks lie. When Groth and Douglas began looking into what, exactly, the researchers were doing on the island, they uncovered behavior that pointed to a degree of hypocrisy in the scientists’ attitudes toward ecotourism and possibly violated agreements with the federal government.

Any marine biologist can tell you that shark research is no way to make a killing. Klimley, a respected figure in his field, scrapes by from grant to grant. And Bill Sydeman, director of the marine sciences division of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, says the entire yearly budget for Pyle’s seasonal research program is just $15,000. Anderson funds his own work by giving talks and selling his footage of the sharks. The difference comes out of his own pocket from the money he earns the rest of the year working on a trail-building crew at the Point Reyes National Seashore and leading natural history trips for the Oceanic Society.

The point is that no one is getting rich here. The payoff for the scientists is that they have what amounts to a permanent appointment to run the nation’s top white-shark research site. The island they live on rent-free anywhere from one to eight months of the year is a national wildlife refuge and the waters around it a national marine sanctuary. Their longtime status on the island makes them de facto stewards of a protected public resource.

Yet Anderson, in apparent violation of his sanctuary permit, has profited from his exclusive access to the islands. Likewise, the Bird Observatory, which operates both on and off the Farallones, uses its gatekeeper status to raise money for its various programs. What makes this questionable is that the refuge is totally off-limits to the public, and the federal government deems it wholly inappropriate for anyone to pay in exchange for a trip to Southeast Farallon Island.

Over the years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed documentary crews to film on and around the island. The one or two lucky organizations a year that are allowed to spend the night do not pay for the privilege, except to reimburse the Bird Observatory for the cost of the stay, generally $90 a day per person, including food that is shuttled to the island by boat. Anderson, however, has made money as a private consultant for film crews on the island. For example, he took in $1,500 for assisting on a National Geographic shoot. In addition, through his work at the Farallones, Anderson owns what is likely the most extensive library of white shark footage ever assembled. With quality material hard to come by, there’s a significant market for this research product — and he charges $40 per second of film. While the researcher says he’s never sold more than a minute or two of footage to any one production company, two minutes of footage would fetch close to $5,000, half of his annual budget for the shark season. And that money went directly to Anderson.

These sales, in fact, appear to be in direct violation of Anderson’s agreement with the federal government. His US Fish and Wildlife permit that allows him to be on the island states: “data, including photographic and video film, will not be used for commercial purposes. Products may be provided at cost for the use of others and will not be sold for profit.”

The peeved Captain Groth brought these issues and a number of other complaints to Fish and Wildlife, which conducted its own informal investigation into Pyle and Anderson’s activities. Joelle Buffa, the Fish and Wildlife refuge manager who signed off on Anderson’s permit and conducted the investigation, says she takes the permit clause to mean Anderson can cover his expenses by selling footage.

That may be a creative reading of the clause, but in any case she has no way of knowing how much money Anderson has made off the videos. The researcher wasn’t required to notify anyone when he sold footage, says Buffa, nor was he asked to submit any financial statements for review in all his years on the island — until Groth complained in 2001 about the sales of footage. Anderson has done nothing wrong, Buffa says, but she also notes that he is no longer allowed to sell his tapes.

Groth also complained to Fish and Wildlife about Pyle’s relationship with the Shark Trust, a British nonprofit that has helped raise money for Pyle’s shark research over the years. It currently has an adopt-a-shark program whose proceeds are forwarded to the Bird Observatory and earmarked for shark research.

According to Clive James, the trust’s director, his organization ran an advertisement in its newsletter in late 1999 or early 2000 offering to let people visit the Farallones to participate in research with Pyle. They could live on Southeast Farallon Island like the other volunteers, share in the chores, and participate in research. The catch? They had to donate money to buy satellite tags. Through the ad, two people with biology backgrounds ended up paying $4,000 to $5,000 each for the privilege of spending a week on the island. The Shark Trust then forwarded this money to the observatory.

No “volunteer” has paid to be on the island since, and Pyle says he didn’t consider the arrangement problematic at the time. But access to the Farallones is highly restricted. Interns and volunteers apply each year, and many are rejected, despite their strong science qualifications. The public has no opportunity to set foot on the island, and only one journalist a year can spend the night there. (Buffa of Fish and Wildlife told this paper not to bother applying, since she would certainly turn down the request.)

Did the Point Reyes Bird Observatory sell access to the Farallones? Pyle says no. “Two biologists wanted to come out and buy tags,” he says. “One was not dependent on the other.” Sydeman also claims there was no problem: “The way it came about was not inappropriate. People applied like anyone would apply. There was no policy where it says if you give money you can go out to the island.” Still, the implication was that you had to pay to be considered.

In 2001, a subsequent offer from the Shark Trust again raised eyebrows. In an effort to bring in more money for research, James says, he posted an ad on his organization’s Web site. Four to eight tourists a year, it promised, could spend a week at the Farallones assisting Pyle with his research. The fee: $11,700 a head.

The offer was essentially an expansion of the program that had brought the first two visitors to the island the previous year. Despite the ad’s language — “Peter Pyle … has confirmed a once-in-a-lifetime offer” — it was posted without Pyle’s knowledge, James says. Pyle also insists he knew nothing about it, even though the ad included specific dates for the visits.

Both the Bird Observatory and Fish and Wildlife ordered the trust to remove the ad. But while Buffa considered the offer extremely problematic, she says her investigation uncovered no inappropriate behavior on Pyle’s part.

Charging tourists to accompany scientists at work in the field is not an unusual arrangement. Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit founded in 1971, sends thousands of people each year on what could be called “research vacations.” In exchange for a fee that supports the scientist’s work, the ecotourist gets to spend two weeks documenting bat diversity in Malaysia ($1,800 plus travel expenses), monitoring coral reefs in the Indian Ocean ($1,900), excavating unexplored Mayan ruins in Guatemala ($2,000), or partaking in any of a host of other projects.

But putting aside the substantially higher price of the Shark Trust’s offer, this method of fund-raising isn’t considered kosher in a restricted refuge like the Farallones. “We do not allow people to pay money to get on the refuge,” Buffa says pointedly. Volunteers and interns on the island usually have at least an undergraduate biology degree and six months of field research experience, and they must also be willing to do chores such as cleaning the toilets and cooking.

The earlier donor-volunteers fit the criteria, Buffa explains, because they had adequate science backgrounds, while those who answered the second ad, she felt, may not have been adequately qualified. In retrospect, Sydeman admits that even the first batch of people who paid to visit the island may not have been the best idea. It might appear, he concedes, as though the Bird Observatory was selling access. Pyle now concurs with this opinion.

But one elite group is still allowed to spend time on the island regardless of any science background. The Bird Observatory’s big contributors get intimate trips to a refuge where the public can’t set foot. Under its deal with Fish and Wildlife, the Observatory gets to dole out twenty such visits a year. “As part of our major donor campaign, part of what we have to do to survive is to show people around the island. They may not stay out there for a week, they may just go out for a day trip,” Sydeman says.

Groth says that what bothers him is the hypocrisy. In particular, he’s appalled that the researchers would try to ban his own commercial operations while using a public resource to bring in funding for their own projects. It is part of what he deems a proprietary attitude that the observatory and its biologists have adopted toward the islands.

Klimley says he’s noticed this attitude as well. When scientists want to conduct research on the island, he claims, they don’t go to Fish and Wildlife first; they go to Anderson and Pyle. If they don’t have a good relationship with the researchers, it’s unlikely they will be able to work there during shark season. Anderson and Pyle dispute this, saying that if Fish and Wildlife approves the project, they will work with anyone.

Though the activities Groth questions haven’t netted Anderson and Pyle much money, their special status at the Farallones does beg some larger questions: Who should be allowed to set foot on the island? Who, if anyone, should be allowed to get close to the sharks? Who should be allowed to drag decoys to bring sharks to the surface, or descend in a cage? And should wealthy benefactors get access to an island that belongs to the public, but is off-limits to it?

Wherever there are rare species and hard-to-reach environments, there are restrictions. In the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s historic trove of biological diversity, the government of Ecuador allows a limited number of tourists each year. They must stick to defined paths and are accompanied by a guide at all times, while designated researchers can freely collect data on exotic species.

Groth drops his decoys off the back of the Patriot to lure sharks near his cage. Once or twice a day, he also tows one around the island trying to get a shark to breach. At a minimum, the researchers want him to stop the towing. Anderson and Pyle use decoys too, if only for an hour a day. The biologists argue that their limited use of decoys does not modify the sharks’ behavior and helps provide them with useful data. At the same time, they speculate that Groth, who uses the decoys for most of the time he’s out at the island, is indeed affecting behavior of the sharks. They have no evidence to support either claim.

While no reasonable person thinks humans should be able to hassle and molest rare or protected species with wild abandon, it’s fair to ask whether Anderson and Pyle deserve more access to these sharks than Groth and his customers, or others who want to observe the animals.

John McCosker sides with the scientists and thinks cage diving should be banned in the Gulf of the Farallones. The value of the long-term studies Pyle and Anderson are conducting is so great, he says, that there should be as little human activity allowed in the area as possible. “There is not room for both at the Farallones,” he says. “For the same reason that tourists are not allowed on the island to look at interesting nesting birds, they should not be allowed [to look at sharks].”

Shark expert Klimley sees room for both research and commercial activities. It’s not always appropriate, he feels, to give researchers unfettered access that the public can’t enjoy. He has often dealt with tour operators who sailed up when he was trying to tag a shark, or otherwise interrupted his research. But Klimley believes these people have as much right to be there as he himself does. “I believe that everyone should have access,” he says. “I am not against ecotourism; it can work with science.”

Indeed, he sees opportunities for funding from Earthwatch-style joint expeditions, similar to the Shark Trust tourism offer that was so resoundingly criticized by Fish and Wildlife and the researchers themselves.

As their feud with Groth has played out, Anderson and Pyle have softened their own stance on cage diving. Rather than calling for an outright ban, they want NOAA to allow it on a restricted-permit basis. Their concern, they say, is waking up one morning to find a dozen cage-diving operations anchored off the island.

The scientists now want regulations that would dramatically curb the use of decoys, but stop short of banning them. Groth says he’s willing to stop towing his busted surfboards around the island, but if he can’t put them in the water when he has the cage down, he’ll be flat out of business.

Part of the issue Pyle and Anderson have with the shark-watchers, they say, is the cowboy nature of cage diving. These thrill-seekers are different than the high-minded whale-watchers who often patrol the waters around the islands, Anderson says: “These guys want to get in the water. They are a different crowd than what you expect from your regular nature trip.”

The crowd on Groth’s boat today, however, isn’t a bunch of yahoos by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a UCLA business student who’s never been scuba diving. Sincere and enthusiastic, he’s hardly the weekend warrior type. There’s also a tax-preparer and her daughter from Omaha, Nebraska. The one avid shark-diver of the bunch is forty-year-old Scott Thornton, a high-school history teacher from the Denver area who has swum with sharks more than a hundred times. Being underwater with them is a thrill, he says, an adrenaline rush like no other. But he also has a healthy respect for the shark and an appetite for knowledge about its behavior. “It is like skydiving; you get addicted to the adrenaline,” he says. “You are reminded you are not in a pool. It’s a neat feeling, the feeling that this is a wild place.”

These are more or less regular folks who, by watching Jacques Cousteau TV specials and the very same documentaries that feature Anderson’s footage, have become so fascinated with sharks that they’re willing to pay dearly to see them up close in the wild.

And on this day, they do.

It’s quite a day, in fact. While two people are down in the cage, one great white shark passes right below their feet. Another swims past the boat and breaks the surface to check out the decoy. The water parts quietly as the shark’s snout dings the board out of the way. Its head, mauled dorsal fin, and long back are visible for a few seconds before disappearing.

Then it’s the reporter’s turn to go back in the water, and once again I find myself shivering at the bottom of the cage, sucking air from a yellow tube and scanning the depths for any sign of movement. This must be what ice fishing or deer hunting is like. Lots of sitting around. Lots of cold. Lots of nothing to do.

Thirty minutes or more pass uneventfully and then suddenly, it happens, just as it happened to Groth on that day five years ago. There’s no sound, no warning, nothing to alert me. Up from the murky green, a dark form rises toward the decoy, twenty feet off the stern of the boat. For a split second the shark pokes its head at the surface and then arcs away from the cage, showing its dorsal fin and impossibly long fuselage.

It was an instant, almost nothing of a view, a blurred shape in the water — hardly the anticipated Discovery Channel moment. But still, it was enough to provide a jolt of awakening, a somehow profound glimpse of insight into the world of hunter and hunted, the weird primal instincts of this creature, and our own self-imposed separation from natural processes.

To be confronted, even at a distance, with this predator is to suddenly see the world a little differently, to gain a bit of humility about our own role on the planet; to understand that Nature, with her sharp rows of teeth, cares nothing about the petty feuds happening above the surface. That she cares only about the next meal.

It’s an experience more people could learn from.

Sudden Impact?
Is tourism harmful to sharks? Perhaps, but it’s helpful too.

With ecotourism on the rise, the feud between Groth and the shark researchers raises questions that extend well beyond the Gulf of the Farallones.

Most researchers believe that, yes, they should have more access to wild species than the public at large, and many ecotour operators would agree. Even Groth doesn’t argue with this premise; that’s why he keeps his distance during feeding events, he says.

Even so, many conservation-minded biologists concede a symbiosis with the ecotourism industry. Samuel Gruber, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami, says tourism can be crucial to science, especially in the case of misunderstood species such as sharks. Gruber, who has studied the big fish for decades, even takes his own students out on dives, during which he chums the water to attract the sharks. “There are negative aspects of feeding sharks,” he says. “It changes their behavior and nutrition, but the benefits far outweigh the cost to a few sharks. They turn divers who might normally hate sharks into ambassadors of goodwill.”

Of course, unrestricted tourism can kill a research project. Scott Eckert is a senior research biologist who studies whale sharks at the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute. In Australia, he has lost entire research areas to tour boats that line up to let their divers swim with the massive creatures. He nonetheless acknowledges that public support of research and empathy with a species is critical to helping that species survive.

As much as the Farallon scientists worry about the impact of commercial marauders, they must themselves be careful, these experts say, lest their own studies interfere with natural patterns. Unlike university-based researchers, who must appear before special committees to present details on how they plan to interact with the animals in a field study, the Bird Observatory researchers need only run their projects past Fish and Wildlife.

Gruber, who believes any act of studying an animal will alter its behavior, says he wouldn’t expect Anderson’s techniques to cause undue harm. Eckert points out, however, that it is impossible to know the impacts of an approach without studying it. Too much interaction may invalidate the data, he says, and regardless of the benefits, any study that harms the animals should be abandoned.

Certainly, in a remote area with a limited population such as the Farallones, many scientists agree that there isn’t room for both research and tourism. But until things are sorted out officially, the feuding parties will be left to their own devices. — J.R.

Previous articleSettling for Less
Next articleA Delidinger Too Many

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

broken clouds
59 ° F
68 °
51 °
63 %
75 %
62 °
58 °
61 °
61 °
58 °
Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate