Wildlife: Who's Afraid of a Little Blood and Guts?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

Wildlife: Who's Afraid of a Little Blood and Guts?

One entrepreneur's sticky plan to bring man and shark closer together
By Brian Alexander

Jon Cappella still believes his idea is a blue-chipper: Dump bucketfuls of fish innards and mammal blood into California's Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and then charge customers $650 a head to be lowered into the sea in cages. If all goes well, they'll see Bonneville-size great white sharks thrash about and flash their pearly whites. People, he notes, love a good scare.

But Cappella's adventure-dive company isn't up and running just yet. Last January, after a single tour, the first of its kind in the United States, local divers and surfers charged Cappella with endangering their lives. "Divers and surfers don't want to be swimming near a bunch of blood-incited sharks," Steve Merrill, president of Santa Cruz-based Surfers' Environmental Alliance, told reporters.

Cappella agreed to halt his shark dives while waiting for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine whether he had been breaking the law. And in March NOAA's regional counsel said that he had, explaining that only fishermen are permitted to chum in the sanctuary. But Cappella has since applied for a special-use permit that would allow him to get around the law. As this issue went to press, he hadn't received notice.

His case, of course, is mostly about free enterprise versus public safety, but to hear Cappella tell it, people shouldn't be denied a good session of subaqueous contact with big, dangerous fish. "I don't want my one successful trip to be the last chance people have to spend time with great white sharks," he says.

The 39-year-old from Aptos, California, started leading dive trips into Monterey Bay in 1988, four years before the sanctuary was officially established there. In those days, he would ladle a few pounds of goop at a time to attract makos and blues, relative puppy dogs in the shark world. Great whites were known to swim in the sanctuary's northern waters, but he'd never tried to rouse them there. Until last winter.

On New Year's weekend, Cappella hired a 65-foot dive boat and motored out to sea carrying 12 paying customers and a tank holding 2,000 pounds of chum. About a mile off Año Nuevo Island, Cappella set his anchor and began pumping blood and guts into the ocean. Four hours later a great white shark showed up, followed by two more. "We had sharks all three days," says Cappella. "It was really successful."

When news of the excursion hit the local papers, Cappella's office was flooded with calls from potential customers. Then came the wave of criticism.

Among the concerns, which marine biologists still admit to being confused about: What if the chum slick drifts toward the shore? Does chum introduce harmful pathogens into the ecosystem? Will frequent chumming trips habituate the sharks to humans?

For now, the area beaches are brimming with summer tourists, and Cappella is busying himself with repairing his cages and figuring out his next move. He's been experimenting with a device that would attract sharks with an electronic pulse, but perfecting it for use in the field, he says, is a long way off.

"Someday," Cappella says, sounding a little like he wished the chum fight would go away, "I hope to be able to ring a bell and have great whites just appear."

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