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Swimming with great whites off the San Francisco coast

Bruce Watkins of Great White Adventures makes sure it's safe for a diver to get out of the great white shark viewing cage.
Bruce Watkins of Great White Adventures makes sure it's safe for a diver to get out of the great white shark viewing cage.
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Most people stay away from shark infested waters, but others pay big bucks to take a dip in the Pacific near some of the most feared sharks in the world, the great white. The California Report's Scott Shafer says one of those places is along the Farralon Islands off the coast of San Francisco.

At 5:45am on a brisk morning, a dozen sleepy people boarded the Superfish at the Emeryville Marina. They’re up early for a rare sighting of one of nature’s top predators. While most people steer clear of shark-infested waters, some folks pay big bucks to take a dip in the ocean near some of the most feared sharks in the world: the great white.

The Farallon Islands, off the coast of San Francisco, are one of the few places on the planet where the brave can test their mettle.

James Moskito is the co-owner of Great White Adventures, the only company in the U.S. specializing in cage diving with great white sharks.

"Why sharks? They are just beautiful, mysterious, efficient creatures that deserve a lot of respect," Moskito explains. "And to see one in the wild, it’s just an amazing way to see and be in the water with it. Knowing that it’s their home sort of makes the odds even."

As the sun slowly rises, the group heads 27 miles out to sea. The Farallon Islands, a wild outcrop of granite, come into view. They’re craggy, otherworldly-looking mountains, with a stink of sea lion excrement that has a knock-out effect. 

Moskito’s been on thousands of dives here throughout the years. He returns every fall — that’s when thousands of seals and sea lions give birth, and the great whites make their violent attack. It’s a dramatic and elusive spectacle, and people pay $775 to get lowered into a cage about a dozen feet underwater, to catch a glimpse.

By early afternoon, the boat anchors near the South East Island, a prime feeding spot. The great white sharks that hang around the Farallon Islands are adults that can range in length from 14 to 21 feet. Fierce hunters and swimmers, they prefer the frigid 54 degree water where almost zero visibility helps them surprise their lunch. 

While divers get in the cage — four at a time — Moskito offers a few tips.

"Lay down on your belly. Lay down flat in the cage and that’s the best way to be in there," he says. "That does two things: You are lower, you can see a little deeper in the water; and you have a nice silhouette of a seal."

"So, if a shark gets near you, what do you do?" asks one of the divers.

"Take a picture of it," Moskito says.

One man asks how much is known about their mating habits, and Captain Mick Minagall is quick to answer.

"Great white sharks are looking for two things," Minagall explains. "They are looking for food and they are looking for sex. We’ve got lots of pictures of them feeding, but none of them mating. If you could come up with a little bit of shark porn you’d be a very rich person. It sells for thousands of dollars per second."

As the day progresses, divers get out of the cold water and into a hot tub on board, and crack open a beer. For some, like Megan Statley, it’s their first experience in the open ocean.

"It’s always something that I thought was really cool," Statley explains. "I’d never thought I’d actually do it, until ... my friend Teresa texted me one day and just said, 'how daring are you?' And I was like, 'well that depends,' and she threw this out there and I was like, 'I’m in, hands down. I’m in.'" 

Moskito says people come to experience great whites in their natural habitat for a lot of different reasons.

"Everybody who comes out here kind of has their own story," Moskito explains, "whether it’s the bucket list, the dream of always being out here to see a great white. People come out here to go cross their fears. People being afraid of the water and jumping in full bore, to jump into a cage surrounded by great whites."

But on this day, no one has the chance to conquer their fears. After 10 hours at sea, not a single shark is spotted. The passengers are offered another trip at half price. As Captain Mick revs the engine to start the journey home, a few folks say they are determined to come back.