Monday, August 28, 2006

White Shark, Dangerous Reef, Australia, 1974.

That morning the Sea Raider came out from Port Lincoln with big drums full of butchered horse; the quarters hung from the stern of the Saori, which was reeking like a charnel house. Buckets of horse blood, whale oil and a foul chum of ground tuna guts made a broad slick that spread northeast toward Spilsby Island. The cages, cameras lashed to their floors, were already overboard, floating astern. The sky was somber, with high mackerel clouds and a bank of ocean grays creeping up out of the south, and a hard wind; petrels dipped and fluttered in the wake. The ship was silent.

-A particulary McCarthy-esque passage from Peter Matthiessen's Blue Meridian, his 175 page chronicle of the now legendary 1969 Blue Water Films expedition led by Peter Gimbel and crewed by Stan Waterman, Rodney Fox, and Ron and Valerie Taylor. The expedition's goal was to capture the first ever underwater 35mm footage of great white sharks (long before most people even knew what a great white shark was) and the crew spent 9 months at sea to achieve that goal. Mattheissen's book draws on his first person experience of the journey, as well as the diaries of several of the crew. This was really the bare bones beginning of what people now consider to be routine white shark observation, and there were very few precedents at the time for the kind of underwater filming the crew was attempting.
A night dive on a whale carcass feeding frenzy:

The ocean was still very rough, and with the surge of the ship the electrical lines kept crossing and snarling; at the same time, the cages were banging together and tangling their tethers, until finally the diver's position became precarious.
At this point, Valerie wrote, Stuart Cody "leapt into the dinghy, cut the cages free from the ship, and with exceptional skill and courage proceeded to untangle the twisted mess."

In the cages, the divers were not aware that they had been cut adrift. "I wondered why we were unable to see the whale anymore," Valerie continued, "and why the light was failing, not realizing that we were no longer tethered to anything but were adrift at night, surrounded by feeding sharks under the Indian Ocean."

...Back on deck, an exhausted trembling wreck, I heard how the cages had nearly been lost when cut adrift. Stuart...had the captain maneuver the Terrier into position downstream and pick us up. Without his quick thinking we would probably still be going...

The feature length film that resulted, Blue Water, White Death, was released in 1971 and shocked audiences around the world, accustomed as they were to the gentle ocean explorations of Coustea and sons. Footage included Peter Gimbel filming a feeding frenzy from within a whale carcass, horrific night shots of clouds of feeding sharks, and of course, the first ever close up footage of the great white shark, filmed from outside the cage. After a short theater run, the film sank into deep obscurity (never released on video or dvd) that was undisturbed by even the phenomonal success of "Jaws" five years later, and the subsequent worldwide shark mania that followed. As a result, it's now become something of a holy grail for shark fanatics. Speculation abounds as to why Gimbel has kept the film locked up for so long, but I think there are clues to be found in the final pages of Blue Meridian, which quote Gimbel's diary at length.
As the expedition comes to a close, , Gimbel reflects on his final dive with the white shark:

"I felt none of the dazed sense of awe that had filled me ten days before during our first night dive. I remember wondering sadly how it could be that a sight this incredible could have lost its shattering impact so quickly for me-why it should be that the sights and sensations should have to accelerate so hellishly, simply to hold their own with my adaptation to them? Only a week or so after having come out of the water one night to say over and over, 'No four people in all the world have ever laid eyes on a scene so wild and infernal as that,' I wasn't even particularly excited...
I was filled with a terrible sadness that we had indeed determined precisely the limits we sought, that the mystery was at least partly gone."