Peter's weather prediction held. As the light came up and I stepped
outside I saw that the fog had dissolved, the ocean was unveiled,
and the jagged contours of another Farallon, Saddle Rock, were
crisply in focus for the first time since my arrival. Saddle Rock
reared out of the water only two hundred yards southeast of the main
island, and from certain angles it looked exactly like a dorsal fin.
Cormorants bunched along its edges, forming an elegant black picket
fence. It marked the divide between Mirounga Bay (where the Rat Pack
hunted) and Shubrick Point (where the Sisterhood reigned). Many an
elephant seal head had been lost in its shadow.
Scot and Peter and I drank our coffee on the front steps, looking out at the water glimmering in the early light. There was a feathery wind and a handful of scudding clouds. The morning was hardly tranquil, though. The gulls screeched at top volume, as always. Surf boomed onto the rocks and the air was hazy with spray. Seabirds flew formation passes over the water, and every time they seemed to favor a particular spot I felt a little flash of hope-was there a carcass out there? Peter seemed to have other things on his mind; he was eyeing a perfect eight-foot barrel wave that rolled along an area known as "Shark Alley." The wave, unsurprisingly, had never been ridden.
Not for lack of surfboards, though. There was a quiver in the supply shed at all times - Scot used them as decoys to lure sharks to the surface for photo IDs. To a shark, apparently, a nice little six-foot swallowtail does a near-perfect imitation of a seal. When retrieved, the decoys were often missing hubcap-sized chunks from their sides, and surfers had taken to sending Scot their castoffs, hoping to repossess them after the sharks had paid a visit. Along with their research value, the strafed boards made for great conversation pieces.
According to Scot and Peter, the Queen Annihilator of Surfboards was a shark named Stumpy. Stumpy was nineteen feet long and weighed five thousand pounds, and when she was in residence, she ruled the Farallones. "She was the only shark that I think understood who we were, what we were trying to do," Peter recalled. "And she didn't care for it. When Scot was first putting out the decoys Stumpy would just come up and destroy them, more because she didn't like them than because she was fooled by their silhouettes." He turned to Scot. "Hey, it's an odd-numbered year. Stumpy could be here." "If she was, we'd know it," Scot said.
Stumpy patrolled a swath of sea along the east side of the island near the main boat launching spot at East Landing. For prey, this was not an advisable route onto shore. "No seal gets by her," Peter said. And while other sharks would take twenty minutes or more to consume their kills, Stumpy could polish off a five-hundred-pound elephant seal in three minutes flat. Though the distinctively cropped tail fin that earned Stumpy her name hadn't been spotted for several years, Scot and Peter still talked about her with a respect that bordered on awe. "Stumpy was a goddess, there's no other way to put it," Peter said, lowering his voice in reverence. One time, Scot rigged a video camera on the underside of a surfboard to determine which angle the sharks were coming from when they attacked. He set the video board adrift off East Landing. Right on cue, like some battle-hardened test pilot, Stumpy gave it everything she had. The resulting footage was stunning, all teeth and whitewater and violent smashing noises that brought to mind a subaquatic train wreck. It was the first time anyone had successfully filmed great white sharks underwater in California.
From Chapter One of The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey. Copyright Susan Casey 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Henry Holt.
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