Tag Archives: Great White Sharks

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!

Shark Sex!

When I was a deck hand and educator on the schooner Adventuress, the quickest way to get grown-ups interested in a marine-wildlife talk was to talk about sex. Mussel sex, crab sex, anemone sex, it didn’t matter; the adults would drop all conversation and scurry over to the tank to listen. Barnacle sex was an especially big crowd-pleaser– not only do barnacles reproduce sexually, they are hermaphroditic and are thus all endowed with the largest penis-to-body-size ratio on the planet. As we used to say on the boat, “that’s an inch and a half to be proud of.”

So it makes sense to me to begin my first post about great white sharks (or simply ‘white sharks,’ as scientists call them) by talking about how they have sex. I’m into sharks these days as I chase a story idea, and over the last few weeks I’ve come across stunning facts and footage of these incredible, gorgeous, and terrifying predators. My top five white shark sex facts? Here we go!:

The Toothy Grin of a Great White Shark

1) White sharks reproduce sexually. Male sharks have two external organs called ‘claspers’ that are used to deliver sperm into the female shark during reproduction. During mating, the clasper unfurls and “opens like an umbrella” to secure delivery until the male is finished.

2) White sharks seem to be rather rough lovers. The females often have deep scars around their head and gills, probably from courtship and mating. The skin on a female’s back is much thicker than a male’s–probably to withstand this abuse–and the females grow to be larger than males (an adaptation known as sexual dimorphism).

3)  White sharks are ovoviviparous; they hatch from eggs inside of their mother’s uterus and continue to grow until birth. This means that they probably participate in intrauterine cannibalism, and EAT their weaker, would-be siblings before birth. Yikes.

4) We think white sharks have between 2 and 7 pups, and have an 11-14 month gestation period. Only one pregnant female white shark has ever been caught, and she and her pups were chopped up for chum by local fisherman before scientists or the press caught on.

5) No human has ever witnessed white shark sex. Our best guess is based on observing other shark mating behavior, but really, nobody knows for sure. French-maid outfits? Black leather dorsal-fin collars? Gary Larson can draw whatever he pleases.

That’s it for now on white sharks from me. Back to my research and my roughs– expect to see more drawings over the next few weeks and months as I dig in. Also, a big shout out to Chris at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for making my week! Chris was about to draw my blood for a test and then recognized my name from reading my blog and my Caterpillar stories. He still drew my blood, of course, but the conversation made my day. Thank you, Chris!