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August 2001 Vol. 27, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Great Whites Visit Catalina

from the August, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The horrifying image won’t go away. Bill McNair sees it at night in his sleep: a great white shark charging from the depths, its mouth agape, threatening to bite him in half.

“As soon as I go to sleep, I see that mouth,” the Huntington Beach podiatrist said. “And then I wake up. I slept maybe 10 hours total in the first week since it happened.”

The nightmares were spawned on the morning of June 10 when McNair, 52, was spearfishing in 70 feet of water on the unpopulated windward side of Santa Catalina Island, 26 miles from Los Angeles. He dived to 15 feet and took aim at a small yellowtail when he saw the shark, an estimated 10-footer with a girth of nearly four feet, rising through the wavering haze.

McNair said he remembers vividly seeing first a patch of gray, then two large eyes, “their black pupils focusing right on me,” and then a mouth “with row after row of crooked teeth ... and this face coming up at me with the speed of a freight train.”

He aimed his powerful gun in the direction of the shark, pulled the trigger. He dropped his weapon and kicked frantically to the surface, glancing over his shoulder once and seeing a silhouette of the predator — turned sideways, with half of a 6-foot spear protruding from its snout.

“His heart was ready to jump out of his chest,” said his diving partner, Lyle Miller of Seal Beach, who plucked McNair to safety aboard McNair’s 38-foot boat. Miller did not see the shark and neither reported the incident to island officials.

While authorities say they believe there is no reason for public alarm, McNair and Miller — veteran breathhold, or “freedivers” — expressed concern about what they perceive to be an increasingly visible presence of white sharks around Catalina’s shores. It was McNair’s second sighting of a great white in two years.

Reports of other sightings have been swirling around the island and throughout the diving community for months. For example, the wife of a freediver allegedly saw a large white shark circling their vessel in the Parsons Landing area near the isthmus as her husband swam back to their boat. She waved her husband off, and he made it safely to shore.

Shark experts declined to speculate as to whether Catalina is being visited by more white sharks than in years past. “White sharks have been residents there seasonally throughout history, long before Wrigley even arrived,” said John McCosker, a marine biologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. “They visit all the offshore islands.”

Pete Thomas, Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2001.

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