Susan Casey on Seeing Her First Great White Shark

11 Jul

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.

Susan Casey is the bestselling author of The Wave, The Devil’s Teeth, and two other books.

Vodka, Your New First-Aid Kit Essential

21 Nov

Failure to pack the proper emergency supplies is a fast way to turn adventure into misadventure, and like most people who wander far from Walgreens’ range, I’ve built my first-aid kit through bitter trial and error. But I’ve got it down now, and here’s the best addition I’ve made to my ready-for-anything list: vodka.

A flask of 80-proof is wildly useful, wherever you are. Vodka is literally—not just psychologically—good medicine. It’s a disinfectant, an antimicrobial, and an anesthetic, so it can clean a cut, prevent infection, and de-stress the patient all at once. Dab it on poison ivy to stop the itching. Pour it on a jellyfish sting to quell the pain—no need to ask someone to pee on you. Vodka cleans dirty surfaces and can sterilize a needle or a safety pin. A dropper of it will clear up an ear infection. In a pinch, vodka works as a fire starter. It’s a hand sanitizer! It’s a dessert topping! Well, maybe not. But it does nicely as an aperitif. 

Or a nightcap. Setting aside the obvious benefits of a personal stash on, say, an overnight bus ride through Hunan province, if you have jet lag, a vodka hot toddy will help you sleep. To soothe a sore throat, gargle your medicinal vodka with warm water. A splash of vodka on your forehead will lower a fever; on your foot it can help heal a blister. Do your running shoes stink? A light sprinkle on the insoles will freshen them up. Does someone in your travel party stink? Rub vodka under your nose. If you’ve eaten something unfortunate, you could do worse than tossing back a shot or two, in an attempt to kill the bacterial invaders. Look, I’m not a doctor. There may be zero medical evidence this works. But take it from Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th-century explorer who specialized in Africa’s most inhospitable corners. He claimed that the reason he survived the parasitic illnesses that killed all his explorer friends was that, every day he was out in the field, he drank like a fish.

Speaking of fish, you can use your adventure vodka to humanely kill them, by pouring it over their gills. No nasty, messy gaffing required. And when you’re sitting around the campfire, eating grilled trout and enjoying a riverside martini, you can spritz some vodka into the air to keep mosquitoes and blackflies away. Vodka repels insects: they really prefer tequila.