Ron Elliott: He Who Swims With Great White Sharks

The San Franciso Bay area is home to many things. Alcatraz. The 49ers. Clam chowder. And Ron Elliott, a retired commercial diver who has spent hundreds of hours swimming (cage-free!) among the largest predatory fish on earth. He didn’t do it for kicks, and he certainly wasn’t hankering to be a hot lunch; he just figured that more sharks meant less competition for the tasy urchins he sold to sushi markets. I had heard that these days Ron was taking underwater footage of the white sharks for his grandchildren, and if I wanted to beautifully and accurately capture these animals in my drawings, Ron would be the man to see for a first-hand look.

Ron Elliot filming underwater with sea lions in the background.

While home for Christmas, Tim and I had the great honor of paying a visit to Ron and his wife Carol at their home in Point Reyes. After introductions I shared a little more about my shark research and drawing interests, and then Ron led us into his office, complete with double monitors and professional film-editing software, where he turns the best segments into fabulous footage. Not only did Ron show us breath-taking close-ups of white sharks at the Farallon Islands, he pulled up clip after clip of the SAME sharks, taken in different years, who are seasonal neighbors in these waters. From propeller scars and sea lion wounds, their individual swimming styles and hunting habits were quickly apparent, and it was great fun to identify each shark and discuss their personalities with Ron.

Ron's in-house video editing station.
Ron shows me his favorite clips of sharks.

In twenty years of diving, Ron has never been bitten by a shark (though he has had a few close calls, including having to use his urchin basket to fend off a mouth full of 300 teeth). But with the camera in front of him—which looks like a giant eye—the white sharks are just as wary of him as he is of them. Good thing; the camera alone is a handful at 28 pounds, loaded with weights to be negative in the water and thus keep the image more steady.

Tim holding Ron's 28-pound camera.

Ron he also showed us dozens of clips of decorator crabs, jelly fish, sea stars, coral reefs, gray whales, fish, and groups of sea-lions. Every video was breathtaking—amazingly clear and colorful, and absolutely packed with activity.

Stills from Ron Elliott's footage, used in the documentary "Sanctuary of the Sea."

After a wonderful dinner we all watched the 18-minute 2010 documentary that NOAA made about Ron, called “Sanctuary in the Sea: A Gulf of the Farallones Experience,” before Tim and I headed home. It is beautifully done and a tasteful reminder of the conservation work ahead to protect this fragile bay for future generations.

Between Ron’s conversation and lush footage, I now have more than enough reference to work with as I go forward with my shark project. An enormous THANK YOU to Ron and Carol Elliott! I look forward to seeing them both again soon!

2 thoughts on “Ron Elliott: He Who Swims With Great White Sharks”

  1. Thanks for the article! I got to know Ron a bit years ago and had the chance to see some of his footage as well. Do you know if he has any plans to release any of it as a documentary? What a shame it would be if it never became public, as it’s some of the most amazing footage I’ve seen.

  2. Hi Sean! Thanks so much for weighing in! You know, I don’t know if Ron is planning to release it– you’re right, he absolutely should, it really is breathtaking stuff (especially the proximity of the sharks!)

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