In the stifled calm, a regular inhalation-exhalation. A shadow, then a flash of silver. Then the elusive subject of fascination makes its silent and slippery approach, emerging in full: the great white shark.
When underwater filmmaker Ron Elliott dives beneath the surface, that moment of suspended magic is what he’s looking for.
I first met Ron over a decade ago, several years after he began documenting the underwater world of the Farallon Islands, the remote jagged rocks about 30 miles from the coast. of San Francisco. The Ohlone people called them the Isles of the Dead; Nineteenth-century sailors called them the Devil’s Teeth. The Farallones are found at the western tip of northern California’s “Red Triangle”, where large numbers of great white sharks come to feed on seals and sea lions during the fall and winter months.
A former commercial sea urchin diver, Ron transitioned from fisherman to filmmaker around 2005, when he discovered he enjoyed watching sharks in this secluded part of the open ocean more than anything else. He befriended shark researchers stationed on the southeastern island of Farallon, providing them with new in-nature images of the shark population. There, underwater, he finally found calm and tranquil beauty. It has become his adopted ecosystem.
But in October 2018, he was bitten by a 17-foot female shark, nearly losing his right hand and forearm in a mind-blowing encounter that reverberated throughout the diving world. A year later, after several surgeries and many grueling hours of physiotherapy, he got back into the water.
During our friendship, I coaxed Ron on stage to talk about his long-standing fascination with the Farallones; a few months ago, I even wrote a book about him. The unusual attraction he feels swimming towards sharks – instead of stepping away from them like the rest of us – is something I’ve always wanted to understand.
He first came to diving as a balm for his brain. “For the mental aches and pains – it was kind of like taking ibuprofen, for my mind,” he said recently. He became sober from drugs and alcohol in 1975 and discovered diving soon after.
In other words: back when “Jaws” was colonizing the American psyche, Ron was swimming against the tide, as a kid diver along the California coast. (He is one of the few people to dive into the Farallones without a protective cage.) The whales passing by, the clouds of blossoming krill, the long tendrils of a jellyfish stretching through the sea. ink darkness. He liked it all. The sharks were curious, but as he learned to navigate the environment, they left him alone. Fear did not enter the scene.
Over time, Ron began to share underwater photographs and videos with his family, with local shark scientists, and eventually with researchers like National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Now that we’re all trying to get back into the water, so to speak, I asked Ron to share some of his amazing work and talk about what he learned from his time in the ocean.
Our conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
First of all, how did you overcome the fear of diving with these super predators?
When I first started diving with the sharks, I had a feeling of invincibility – that I would be okay with whatever happened. And I still have that feeling to a certain extent, when I only think about myself, and not my wife and my family. I am in the moment and I think of nothing else. Even though I had been in some scary situations, I challenged myself to be in the present and observe the enormity of sharks and what they do.
How did filming sharks change your outlook?
Once the idea of shooting down a camera popped into my little brain, I realized I wanted to show people the amazing things I saw. I started to think my family would like to know what I was doing there. I had always kept it inside. Sharing what I have seen – with my family, scientists and researchers – has taught me to open up a bit.
I am a visual person. When I worked with other people, when I watched the video at home, I was able to appreciate it more. I could watch it in slow motion and really digest it. It would take me back. I could see it in a different way. So it was very heartwarming.
You mentioned how spending time with the sharks and reviewing the footage was kind of therapy.
Yeah, it did. I depended on it. It was a great motivation for me. It gave me something to look forward to, to stay close to the water.
The accident didn’t seem to do much to your feeling of invulnerability at first.
Oh, I was ready to get back into the water. From the start. The doc was shaking his head. I really thought I was going to be able to do it quickly. It kept me going – through all the surgeries and rehabilitation.
I wasn’t going to let what happened take away what I loved to do. I wasn’t going to go out like that.
Also, since the shark ran away with my 4K camera, I really wanted to see if I could find it.
But your sense of invulnerability started to change last year.
I have been very lucky over the years with bumps and buzzes. But going through these surgeries, physical therapy, rehabilitation, in this pandemic – it’s been very time consuming and stressful. The amount of effort you put in, ultimately that good feeling I had while diving was going away. And I think of Carol, my wife. She never told me to stop diving. She knows how important this has been to me. But I’m not so selfish anymore. It became more of a relational type decision.
How has your relationship with diving in the Farallones evolved over the past three decades?
In the early years, it was very rare for things to feel really dangerous. I just didn’t have those kinds of interactions with animals. What has changed over the past few years is that sharks have started to behave a little differently with me. There were more encounters that seemed close to something confrontational. I don’t know if this has to do with changes in the ocean – climate change affecting everything, purple sea urchins completely invading the seabed, more people cage diving – or if it’s me.
Helping my fellow researchers in science and conservation work has become very important to me. But do I really bring a negative effect to sharks if I have an accident again? This kind of thing is always going to be amazing, because people are so scared. Is it selfish of me, is it harmful to animals? I don’t want to add more.
I see the sharks and actually think they’re okay. They thrive even though their habitat has changed. [Warming waters have helped expand the geographic range of great white sharks along the California coast.] The fact that I am part of their habitat has changed, however. I feel a little out of place; I don’t see it the same way. I had this ecosystem for a while, I was part of it. Now, I don’t feel like I belong in the same way anymore.
What did sharks teach you about humans?
Even though it’s sharks in this case, we could be talking about a relationship with anyone or anything in life. It started out being about me, in a naive way – what I got out of things. There is an evolution over time, in which we put everything and everyone involved in perspective. Life changes. Ultimately, you have to change. Everything is not always the same.
You have to adapt and change, and take care of the other people who are out there – or the experience of life really ends. It gets smaller.
Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim”. His new book on Ron Elliott is “The Uncertain Sea”.
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