What I noticed, in the moments before I saw the shark, was the silence. It was a deep silence, full of myth and primordial fear. That’s the one thing that everyone who’s encountered a great white agrees on: Before you see it, you feel its presence. A single animal emits a vibe that raises the hairs on the back of your neck, long before it shows itself. And though I didn’t know it at that moment, there were at least five great whites circling me.
I sat in a small boat—a 17-foot Boston Whaler—with two scientists who were determined to crack the great white’s secrets. Their work was noble and occasionally terrifying; white sharks are among the ocean’s most mysterious and misunderstood creatures. Certainly, they’re the only ones that come equipped with their own scary theme music.
The scientists had found the perfect place to conduct their research: Southeast Farallon Island, a remote outpost 30 miles due west of the Golden Gate Bridge, where each autumn a large population of great white sharks gather to hunt elephant seals. Technically, the island exists within the 415 area code, but its jagged rocks, dark water, and plain spookiness evoke another planet. I’d made my way out there after seeing a documentary about the place that haunted me. In the three years since I’d glimpsed them on film, the Farallon great whites topped my list of marine obsessions.
Dangling off the stern like a lure, a six-foot surfboard bobbed on the light swell. Typically, to get a great white’s attention, more substantial bait is required. But not here. The sharks are so numerous, so hungry, that the mere suggestion of a seal draws them in.
It was drawing them in now.
“Shark approaching,” the first scientist said in a low voice. He’d seen the big boil made by a great white’s tail fin as it swims just below the surface. Then, suddenly, I saw it, too. A strong wake, a swirl of disturbance, then the dorsal fin rising like a periscope, headed directly for us. The shark swam alongside the Whaler, then dove beneath us and bumped the back of the boat. I was struck by its massive girth, the many scars and scrapes and divots on its body, and its color: Viewed from above, these white sharks were jet black. Only their undersides were white. Three more sharks approached, also midsize males, investigating the boat. One raised his head from the water and bit a corner of the outboard motor almost delicately. The Whaler rocked. Then, at once, the males vanished, and in swam a huge female. She was 18 feet long and seven feet wide, a sublime predator shaped by 400 million years of evolution. I felt a very old part of my brain snap to attention—the amygdala, a bean-shaped bundle of neurons that processes fear. But I wasn’t scared—I was awed.
It was only later, when the awe subsided and I began to think about what could have gone wrong, what bad things might have happened when surrounded by a small herd of great white sharks, that fear settled back in. Later, when life became ordinary again. Later, when the scientists laughingly revealed to me their boat’s nickname: the Dinner Plate.