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Diver debunks sharks’ bad reputation

The great whites stopped nosing around the boat, but they were still out there.

The captain could see them on his depth finder, on the bottom more than 200 feet below.

On the dive platform, William Winram strapped on a low-volume mask and long-blade fins, as did his two friends. Tall and wiry, with cool, narrow-set eyes and sandy-blond hair flecked with gray, Winram is a champion free-diver, capable of holding his breath for eight minutes. He once stroked to a depth of 295 feet and back without oxygen or fins.

PHOTOS: Swimming, cage-free, with the sharks

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He planned to go meet the great whites today. No shark cage. No spear gun or knife. Just his camera. Photos and video would document the event.

The three jumped into the cool water. The blue was endless, faint rays of sun wobbling into the twilight depths below, bits of sediment and plankton glinting like stars in a pre-dawn gloom.

Winram, 46, was calm, looking down, taking long, deep breaths through his snorkel, filling his lungs to capacity.

He descended slowly to 60 feet and hung there, gently sculling his hands to stay in position. This was his Zen zone, weightless, heart rate slowed to near 30 beats a minute, his mind clear as the sea.

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His friends Fred Buyle and Pierre Frolla acted as lookouts, treading on the surface.

Winram couldn’t see anything below. He waited for two minutes, then headed back up to get more air, looking to see where the boat was, then scanning all around.

Great whites always come from behind.

At about 40 feet below, he heard the throat-pulsing sound that the divers make to signal one another. Mmph-mmph-mmph.

He turned around to see an adult shark coming at him faster than he’d ever experienced. Normally, they were cautious and skittish. This one, weighing well over a ton, looked like he was considering a bite.

Winram was too far from the boat to get there in time. And even if he had tried, the shark’s instincts would lock down: prey.

So he turned straight at it and flared his legs wide to look bigger. Then he took three shots with his Canon.

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In the last few years, divers like Winram have been debunking the sinister reputation of the so-called man-eater.

Certainly, a great white might take a taste of you if you’re not looking, which might in turn kill you. It happens once in a while. But face-to-face — for the rare person with the disposition to desire such a meeting — they are wary and shy, if not a bit curious. Once comfortable with you, they might let you touch them, even hang on to their dorsal fins and ride them. They’ll show you when they’re angry by head-bumping you, or hungry by rushing you, but usually a good thwack on the nose will send them reeling in shock.

A South African named Andre Hartman is often credited as the first diver to leave the cage to interact with great whites, a.k.a. “white death.” But commercial divers and shark researchers have been quietly coexisting with them for many years, as have untold surfers and swimmers who never knew they were being checked out from below.

“Most of the time they’re pretty wary,” said Ron Elliott, a sea-urchin diver who harvested the cold, rough waters of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge, for 15 years.

The islands are a feeding ground for great whites, and Elliott encountered one on about every other dive. “They don’t want to get injured. They’re all scarred up by elephant seals. They’re kind of the sneak-attack type. Sometimes they come up at you exercising their jaws. You got to go around and poke them. Usually, if you show some aggression, they back off.

“I had one instance where there was going to be a serious attack. He was going to speed-rush me. But I looked at him and he broke off.”

Elliott accepted them as a manageable hazard of doing business in their world. Others, like Hartman, saw them as business themselves, taking tourists down with him.

Winram grew to love them.

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The Vancouver, Canada, native tags the animals for scientists and captures images of them that confound us. He wants to show that humans’ natural fear has been blown way out of proportion and convince people that the creatures deserve protection.

His business card reads: “Shark Publicist.”

On a recent night he was speaking to about 120 “shark aficionados” at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco. On the wall above him was a photo of the shark nosing up at him, off Baja California’s Guadalupe Island in November 2009.

“It stopped. You’re not prey. What are you?” Winram recalled. “Sharks pick up on your vibe.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council had invited Winram to speak to ocean-minded groups in the Bay Area as part of its campaign to pass a bill that would ban the sale of shark fins in California. An estimated 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins every year, and a third of shark species are nearing extinction.

Leila Monroe, an attorney with the environmental group, hoped Winram’s photos would give people a more realistic portrait of sharks than they get watching teeth-baring monster shots on cable TV.

“The photos showed something nearly beyond belief,” Monroe said. “Once I was assured the photos and setting was real, I was completely taken by the majesty of the sharks.”

Winram seeks to meet the sharks in as natural a state as a human can. He doesn’t chum the water with blood to attract them. He doesn’t wear a noisy scuba tank or sit in a shark cage or carry a spear gun or an explosive-tipped “bang stick.” He descends again and again until they are comfortable enough to come close.

“I have never seen a shark gaping its jaws like you see on TV,” he said. “These shows don’t show all the stuff they do behind the scenes where they are chumming and baiting and pushing these animals to exhibit this kind of behavior.”

He does not deny that they kill humans. They make international news when they do; this month two people were killed in the Seychelles and two were maimed in eastern Russia, causing panic and closing beaches in both places. In the U.S., there is one shark fatality on average every two years. (More people die at the beach getting buried in holes they dig in the sand.) But sharks are not simply killing machines looking to bite humans every chance they get.

Winram first got an inkling of this in his 20s when he was spear-fishing off Baja Sur and a tiger shark started shadowing him. Images of “Jaws” ricocheted through his brain. In a panic he dropped his spear and then lunged to grab it. The sudden movement scared the shark and it darted away.

That’s not what’s supposed to happen, he thought.

Now, in tagging and photographing them, he has touched them, held their fins, swam alongside them, even squared off over territory with them.

“I was swimming with a big female. She was rolling her belly at me. From what I know from scientists, she was showing me she was bigger, which is higher status. She was trying to get me to cede the surface to her. Sweetheart, you’re 1 1/2 tons, I get it. But I need to breathe. She was coming at me, gnashing her teeth. The next thing they will do to another shark is rake their teeth across it. So I fired the shutter of my camera. And she was off.”

Even the great white’s dynamic with seals is not what you might suspect in the open water, Winram said. Sharks attack injured seals or sneak up on them as they enter the water from the beach. But once the seals can see them in the open water, they are too agile for the sharks to catch.

“I’ve seen them swim all around them and nip the shark in the tail.”

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Chris Lowe, a marine biology professor who runs the shark laboratory at Cal State Long Beach, has free-dived with tiger sharks in Hawaii and found it exhilarating. “If you’re in the water and see a shark, that should be an awesome experience,” he said.

He conceded that seeking to swim with tiger and great white sharks, among a few other species, is dangerous.

“Look, people do a lot of crazy things,” he said. “They go hang gliding. They climb mountains. My philosophy is just know what you’re getting into. Somebody might get bitten. Just like somebody might fall off the mountains.”

Lowe said it is still not clear when the creatures will get aggressive and why, but that scientists are learning from the interactions. “As people spend more and more time in the water, either free-diving or using re-breathing technology, we’re going to get more insight into shark behavior.”

Dan Cartamil, a postdoctoral researcher at the Graham Shark Lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, isn’t as certain. “It’s really risky and carries the risk of backfiring. A lot of these people who play with fire do get burned.”

Winram exudes none of the messianic mania of some self-proclaimed animal whisperers, like Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers communing with grizzly bears in Alaska before being eaten by one in 2003.

But he watched “Grizzly Man,” the Werner Herzog documentary on Treadwell, in part to see how he himself might be perceived. When the Daily Mail of London ran some of his friend Buyle’s photos online, there were plenty of comments like: “Idiots, they are lunch just waiting to happen.”

Winram says he studies every situation before he jumps into the water and manages the risk by always having others watching his back. But he knows the hazards; adventures, by definition, are fraught with them. Even without sharks, free-diving often involves pushing the human body to an invisible outer line, and plenty of people have died crossing it.

His biggest fear remains the most inexplicable and mundane. Just before heading up to the podium in San Francisco to speak, his face is tense. “I’d rather cut my arm open and dive in with a great white than do this talk.”

PHOTOS: Swimming, cage-free, with the sharks

joe.mozingo@latimes.com


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