Fishing: Elusive monster stays hidden...for now

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IT HAS been a very bad year for Vic Sampson, the world's most successful great white shark fisherman. The South Africans have banned all fishing for great whites. The Australians have followed suit. And now Sampson's dream of catching the world's most feared fish from the unlikely waters of Scotland appears to have been scuppered.

He is annoyed about the Australian move. It was there three years ago that Sampson hooked and played a great white for four hours. It was dark when the huge fish, estimated at around 4,000lb, was brought right up to the boat. In rough seas, the crew made a mess of landing the shark and it escaped. Sampson, having seen the largest fish ever caught on rod and line get away, said with admirable restraint: "I've got to say, I'm not very pleased with you guys."

He's even more peeved about the South African ban. Off Durban, commercial boats have spotted a great white that they have nicknamed The Submarine, estimated at 25ft-27ft. Sampson set about planning an expedition to catch the monster, whose weight, at a conservative guess, would be between 7,000lb and 8,000lb. It would shatter the 1959 world rod-caught record of 2,664 lb.

Sampson planned to plant a satellite transmitter in the fish, so scientists could trace its movements, and release it. But South Africa has banned all fishing for great whites, largely because of a gruesome commercial industry which saw the sharks killed just for their jaws, which command up to $10,000.

Now Sampson's hopes of catching one in home waters may be foiled too. Though great whites have never been caught in British waters, he is convinced that certain Scottish marks, and perhaps one or two off Ireland, are home to the man-eater known as white death.

Sampson looks the part of a great white shark angler. He is built like the fish itself: huge shoulders, frightening aspect, awesome power. It's hard to equate this with a man who spends his non-sharking hours in Dulwich, south London, running a small property business. Sampson has probably a greater knowledge of great white behaviour than anyone in the world - including scientists who specialise in them. He has caught more than 20, including one estimated at 2,500 lb - the third largest taken on rod and line.

Sampson is convinced that the theories of Glasgow skipper Stan Massey, who claims that great whites are living happily in Scottish waters, are correct. Not only are conditions ideal (the right water temperature; undisturbed hunting grounds; a surfeit of seals, their favourite food), but Massey has already been proved right about porbeagle sharks, which others said could not possibly live off Scotland in winter.

Massey and Sampson have corresponded closely for several years. Massey documented incidents like one involving members of the British Sub-Aqua club who clambered quickly out of the water when a 15-20 ft shark circled and "eyeballed" them. It was described by one as "a 20ft porbeagle - but it wasn't a porbeagle". Great whites and porbeagles are of similar shape, though the latter rarely exceeds 10ft and is not known to have attacked man.

Massey persuaded a group of enthusiasts to join him in building a 52ft boat, capable of withstanding the long run to turbulent waters where not just big shark, but swordfish and bluefin tuna could be caught.

It was a ridiculous project. They had little money, no knowledge of boat- building and no guarantee of success at the end of the rainbow. But the pounds 200,000 big-game boat was eventually completed in 1996. At first, Massey set about proving a few small points. "In the first year, we caught 29 porbeagle, including two world records."

Then disaster struck. A serious problem with the engine developed. Hocked to the eyeballs, the men who had made the boat happen could not afford the repairs. It was recently sold. It seemed pointless to keep quiet any longer about the secret I had shared with Massey and Sampson for four years.

The end of the great white hope? Not quite. Massey says: "Someone will get one sooner or later. It needs time, money and belief. I'm not beaten yet. And I'll tell you: these Scottish great whites will not be tiddlers either. I reckon they will be big, 3,000 lb or more."