Dangers of great white-knuckle ride

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The Independent Online
YOU probably think the Jaws story of a huge great white shark attacking a fishing boat and gobbling up the passengers is a bit far-fetched. But my friend Vic Sampson, who has caught more great white sharks than anyone else, assures me that it's eminently possible - on two counts.

It is hard to believe any fish could be that large. But the Spielberg model was 25ft long, and Vic is hoping to fish early next year for a great white at least that large. It has been spotted off Durban, South Africa, several times by commercial boats, which are pretty good at estimating size. They reckon it is between 25ft and 27ft. Conservative guesses would make such a fish somewhere around 7,000lb - more than three tons.

It won't be easy to capture something that big. Vic, who has caught more than 20 great whites including the third largest-ever, a 2,500-pounder, reckons it could take eight hours to conquer a three-tonner. That might seem a long time but it pales into insignificance compared to Bob Ploegen's experience in Kenai, Alaska, in 1989. He hooked a salmon at lunchtime on 12 July and eventually lost it two days later, disappointing hundreds of spectators and television cameras. Bet he said: "Bother!"

Fitness will be vital for Vic. He is a professional shark fisherman and hunter and built like a Russian presidential car, but he is preparing for this particular fight harder than even Rocky did. He runs a couple of miles a day and swims 20 lengths, as well as performing strenuous lifting exercises. Trying to wind in the shark, which he has nicknamed Delilah (Sampson, geddit?), will be like trying to tow a super tanker with a pedalo - especially as international rules limit the line strength he can use to 130lb breaking strain.

Incidentally, if he catches the shark, it would be returned after being tagged by scientists, who want to monitor its movements. You don't fish for great whites for bloodlust or machismo any more, just for fun; both Australia and South Africa have imposed protective measures.

But there is still a smidgen of danger. Such a shark, which would eclipse the 2,664lb record which has stood since 1959, might well attack the boat, Vic admits. "It will certainly tow the boat," he says in a remarkably calm manner. "I caught one of just over 2,000lb and that pulled the boat two miles out to sea, so goodness knows what one of 7,000lb could do, especially if it decided to swim towards the boat rather than away from it."

He has had first-hand experience of a great white's rage. "I was fishing off South Africa and playing a small great white, only 800lb or so. It was nearly beaten, and I'd almost got it to the side when the fish attacked. It came straight at the boat. I threw myself against the wheel house but the shark came right out of the water at me. It was about a foot from my face, with its mouth open, when it fell back into the water. It was quite a lively fish, that one."

My own shark story seems a bit tame beside that one. We were fishing off the Isle of Wight, once the most productive area in the country. It was a hot day and nothing was happening. I got out my handkerchief to dip in the sea and sloosh across my face to cool down, but a gust of wind blew it out of my hand and into the sea. I went to lean over to pick it out - and a porbeagle shark came out of the depths, a couple of feet from the boat, and grabbed the handkerchief.

That might seem very odd, but sharks will eat sea birds, and twice I've seen them come up to attack balloons that we were using as floats. They are, after all, scavengers and if something moves and looks like food, there is a reasonable chance that a shark will eat it, however inedible it might be.

But don't ask me why that fish ate a handkerchief (we never caught it, so I never got my hankie back). I only know that whenever I shark-fish now, I never trail my hands in the water.