Thursday, January 31, 2002
Photo by Brett Wilbur
Photo: Great White Hunter Tad Masek flies a Cessna over the Pacific to help researchers spot Great White Sharks.
The 1973 Cessna is small-24 feet small, with an interior that''s barely large enough to squeeze in a pilot and one passenger. Tad Masek, standing taller than the wings, walks around the exterior of the plane checking fuel and oil levels. Satisfied, he puts on his leather flight jacket and pronounces the plane ready to go. It''s an awkward step up and inside and into the cracked leatherette seat and seatbelt harness. The gadgets and controls inside of the plane look a bit dated.
"This plane is perfect for what we''re doing," Masek reassures, patting the dashboard. "Ready?"
Masek-23-year-old CSUMB student, Earth Systems Science Policy major, and a licensed pilot for five years now-is volunteering his Sunday morning for the noble purpose of spotting Great White sharks for Santa Cruz''s Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. As the Cessna lifts off from the Watsonville airport, Foundation director Sean Van Sommeran and photographer/president Callaghan Fritz-Cope are already on the water. They''ve been up since first light, circling Año Nuevo island on their 22-foot boat and dragging an 8-foot lure shaped like an elephant seal and coated in blubber. Yesterday five Great Whites came up for a sniff.
Using the boat and lure as a ruler of sorts, Van Sommeran estimates the sharks'' lengths to place them in gender and generational categories, while Fritz-Cope holds a camera underwater to snap identifying photos of passing sharks. So far he''s kept his hands intact, even when pushing away Great Whites that come too close to the boat. Last year Masek joined the team, which holds countless permits from the state, to provide a bird''s eye view of the sea for the boat crew, radioing down when he spots a promising group of birds or seals likely to draw in the Great Whites.
This morning Masek flies north up the coastline, past Santa Cruz and toward Año Nuevo. "Sometimes I wonder why we''re using a plane to chase fish," Masek grins as he banks sharply over the sparkling Pacific toward the research vessel. This isn''t the first time he''s done it. Last year, when National Geographic was searching for a local pilot to study Orcas, Masek was the only one at the Watsonville airport interested. He leans over and unlatches his window and suggests his passenger do the same. The wind and gravity are suddenly pulling all unsecured objects-reporter''s notebook, hair, cell phone, camera-dangerously close to the open window. Even with the headphones, a constant rhythm of propeller and air beats against the eardrums.
A scratchy voice comes over the radio. It''s Van Sommeran, advising Masek of a gray whale that''s passing by the boat. "I can''t believe I didn''t see that," Masek says, as he quickly turns the plane around. The breaching whale is beautiful, but somehow not quite as thrilling as the first Great Whites he saw. "The first one was only 8 feet, but the second one was huge-18 feet long-and it blew me away how wide they are," Masek says. "You see a huge silhouette slithering through the water like a snake."
Van Sommeran understands the shark fever people get. "It''s such a totemic animal that people go nuts over it," he says. "Sharks bring chaos in people when they show up that never goes away." PSRF has remained strict shark advocates, resisting techniques like chumming-dragging bloody bait behind a boat to attract sharks. True to its name, PSRF recently carried out the fieldwork for a Great Whites study published in Nature. The study proved that sharks are truly pelagic, or open ocean creatures, not coastal, as many researchers previously thought. UCSC scientists did the analysis of the data stored on satellite tags, discovering that one shark had traveled as far as Hawaii from the Farallon Islands, possibly to mate.
The plane needs to conserve fuel, so Masek lands on a tiny 1,300-foot private landing strip on the edge of a cliff across from the island. Van Sommeran calls Masek''s cell phone to say there''s nothing much going on. Masek takes off over the edge of the cliff, does a "wave" to the boat with the plane wings, and heads back to Watsonville. Minutes later, a Great White approaches the boat, and Van Sommeran calls Masek''s cell phone. The ringing can''t be heard above the noise of the plane, and Masek doesn''t get the message until he''s landed the plane back in Watsonville. It''s an annoying glitch but not the end of the world.
"We need to improve our communication," he says. "But that''s how it goes in this business."