Contrary to popular belief (and television portrayals), great white sharks are actually graceful, peaceful animals. They don’t have the luxury of making reservations at a restaurant and taking tiny bites with a knife and fork. When they need to eat, they’re pretty limited. Not their fault.
Few people know this more than Lawrence Groth (aka “Sharkman Groth”) and dive master Erick Higuera. They spend countless hours down in the ocean with sharks, enduring the brutal but necessary 18-20 hour trek across the Pacific to Guadalupe Island, Mexico, and the often chilly, foggy trips to the Farallon Islands near San Francisco to hang out with sharks.
Groth and his team design and build their own cages. From a 10-foot surface cage to a 40-foot submersible cage, which is basically a standing porch swing in the ocean (translation: it’s open on all sides), and finally to the balls-out “Pelagic Explorer,” a.k.a. Shark Propelled Shark Cage (SPSC). It is essentially a submarine shark cage that can cruise around freely at depths of 100 feet.
Groth’s company Shark Diving International brings hardcore shark lovers and quaking-in-their-boots newbies out and gives them an experience they’ll never forget: seeing 15-to-18-foot sharks gliding past you and sometimes right toward you. What makes these guys jump into the kind of waters that haunt most people’s nightmares? Let’s find out…
How’d you get into shark diving?
Lawrence Groth: I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau on TV and for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a diver. I got my first SCUBA certification on my 13th birthday and then as soon as I graduated high school I went to Houston to train at a commercial diving school. I worked as a commercial diver for 22 years before my shark-diving business took off and became my new full-time career and all-consuming passion.
What was your first time seeing a great white Like?
The first time that I saw a white shark was an awe-inspiring and life-changing moment. I was alone on the stern of a boat waiting at Southeast Farallon Island (off the coast of San Francisco). Everyone else on the boat was doing something other than watching for sharks.
I was standing on the swim platform with my feet wet just watching the water, when all of a sudden a HUGE dorsal fin appeared, moving from left to right across the surface only five feet away from me -- it was moving fast, like 20 mph, and it created a huge wake that washed over the swim platform and drenched me from the knees down.
I fell backwards onto the deck, yelling "SHARK!" It was awesome. I had just met an 18-foot white shark at Southeast Farallon Island. That was it! I was hooked for life.
What was your first time going so deep with sharks like?
It was absolutely insane. We lowered the cage down to 100 feet and within two minutes we had nine white sharks circling close to the cage, almost bumping into each other. My first thought was, “This is great… but next time we should have communication with the guy up topside on the crane.” That first time we just told the crew to lower us down to 100 feet and bring us up in 10 minutes. It was a long but amazing 10 minutes. That was the greatest dive I had ever had, until I built the “Pelagic Explorer.”
"I fell backwards onto the deck, yelling "SHARK!" It was awesome. I had just met an 18-foot white shark at Southeast Farallon Island. That was it! I was hooked for life."
What was building the Pelagic Explorer like?
After 10 years of cage-diving I had a very good appreciation and a healthy respect for these amazing animals. I was ready to take a huge step towards getting closer to the sharks. I wanted to get away from the boat and see what they were doing and where they where going when they were not at the boat. I had been thinking of building a vehicle that was capable of allowing me to follow the white sharks for long periods of time and for great distances.
In 2009, I called a lifelong friend named Tim Morrow, who owned a company called Accurate Tube Bending in Newark, California. Tim’s company motto is “We can Build Anything.” I like his attitude. I brought him my primitive pencil drawings and he sat me down with his lead designer Chris Hannekamp and we worked for about five days on the computer using SolidWorks, a 3D CAD program. Then the machines just started spitting out parts.
On day 12 we had a beautiful machine ready to take out in the ocean and dive with white sharks. Ten years of dreaming and two weeks in the coolest machine shop in California, and I was staring at the coolest diving machine I had ever seen.
What was your first experience going down in the mobile cage like?
The first dive was actually pretty funny. We decided that we should test it in the open sea before we get to the island and before we added a dozen BIG white sharks to the test program.
We launched just 10 miles out from Ensenada, Mexico. I invited a few of my friends out on our boat the Solmar V. Everyone jumped in with us and was swimming around taking pictures of us getting in and getting ready to fly it for the first time. When we were all strapped in and ready, I told my partner up in the front, "Hold on, here we go," and then we punched the throttles wide open.
We took off like a bat out of hell. Our friends couldn’t get out of the way in time and we plowed through about five divers before I realized it and we had covered about 50 feet in like six seconds. There were fins and cameras flying in every direction. Thankfully nobody was hurt. In fact, everyone was super stoked about how fast we went and everyone was really excited to see us in action with the sharks. Off to “shark island” we went…
When we finally got the Pelagic Explorer in the water with the white sharks at Guadalupe, the sharks’ reaction was nothing short of amazing. They treated us like we were just another shark. We were able to fly in formation with them right alongside within inches of these massive sharks. I was amazed.
I had concerns that the sharks would shy away or even worse leave the area when the SPSC was cruising around. Nope… the sharks dug us! The feeling of cruising alongside a 16-foot white shark is like nothing else on earth. Now after several seasons we have experienced some epic dives and have flown/dived for over 100 hours with these beautiful sharks.
What would you say to people who are terrified of sharks and say they could never get into the cage?
Sharks are our planet’s most important animals that have a very important job of keeping the oceans in balance. Without them we will be in heaps of trouble. We humans are far more dangerous to them than they are to us. I guess that it is hard for some of us to let go of our primal instinct for survival. Hollywood hype and media misrepresentation cause a great deal of damage to the sharks’ reputation.
I am planning to fly with sperm whales, blue whales and polar bears just to name a few. Right now I am working on the logistics for an orca project. How cool would that be, flying along with a pod of orca in the open sea! I cannot wait.
Last August, Dina Gachman spent three days in a cage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean while sharks swam around her. You can follow her on Twitter @TheElf26.
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