Open jaws

Fancy a bite? Jane Peyton goes swimming with sharks near Santa Barbara and lives to tell the tale
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The Independent Travel

Running along the coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is a line of small islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary. Their waters boast abundant wildlife from the smallest krill to the blue whale. And in between the size extremes are dolphins, sea lions, seals and that apex predator and object of endless fascination and fear, the shark. But banish any thoughts of Jaws, because Great Whites are rarely spotted. Blue sharks are more common and it is these creatures that are the stars of diving excursions here.

Running along the coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is a line of small islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary. Their waters boast abundant wildlife from the smallest krill to the blue whale. And in between the size extremes are dolphins, sea lions, seals and that apex predator and object of endless fascination and fear, the shark. But banish any thoughts of Jaws, because Great Whites are rarely spotted. Blue sharks are more common and it is these creatures that are the stars of diving excursions here.

For certified open water scuba divers in search of a thrill, Psalty Adventures runs three- and four-day trips. Up to six can be accommodated on the Psalty V, a 50-foot long customised sport fishing vessel. It is a fast boat that whisks voyagers away from San Pedro Harbour, Los Angeles, to Santa Catalina Island (commonly known as Catalina) for a brief practice dive in shallow water. Catalina is renowned for its numerous and varied diving locations. A memorable sight is that of enchanted kelp forests swaying in the current with colourful reef fish and bat rays playing hide and seek among the fronds.

FIRST CONTACT

Sharks tend to hunt in the afternoon. So after the Catalina dive, Psalty V captain Gary Jackson, himself an experienced diver, heads the boat towards open water because it is time to get chummy. Fresh fish is fed into a heavy-duty grinder that spews out a greasy slick of seafood particles behind the moving craft, creating a "chum line" that floats in the ocean and acts as a lure for sharks. It can take between 30 minutes and three hours for them to respond to the scent, swimming to its source, expecting lunch.

A dorsal fin is spotted. Quick, don the gear and get into the cage. Where's the cage? Oh blimey, it's suspended from large buoys and a steel cable, 15ft below the surface, which means swimming out and descending into it. Now the adrenaline starts to course and a cartoon-like gulp is emitted - nothing like being a warm piece of bait in the sea next to 8ft hungry blue sharks. But hang on: if this were a dangerous activity, Gary Jackson would not risk the safety of his clients. The truth is, blue sharks are docile, prefer to eat squid and bony fish, and become agitated only when competing for food. Even so, for peace of mind, two experienced shark-masters are on duty to help divers into the cage, keep an eye on the sharks and wallop them on the nose if necessary.

So, it's flippers on and into the water. Bubbles rise in front of the mask then clear to reveal azure water pierced by sunrays. Follow the cable down to the cage and manoeuvre into the protective box. Sharks circle, inhaling the aroma of chum but after a while very few divers stay behind the bars because as Gary says: "Blue sharks may appear to be like big mean dogs, but they are as friendly as kittens."

It is perfectly safe to swim with these animals, scratch their bellies and even feed them dead fish. And when the sharks realise that divers have food, they swim up close in anticipation. The trick is to relax and remember that they are interested in the mackerel, not you. If the shark becomes too inquisitive, gently push the snout and it will move away.

If Jaws is more akin to your shark expectations, this can be arranged. It means getting back into the cage because you do not want to be loose as the cuddly blues turn from pets to wild animals. This is done by attaching a sack of fish to the cage and splitting it open. When the sharks realise this is the main course, they become frenzied, with aggressive head-jerking, eye-closing, teeth-baring behaviour only inches away from you. It sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but you're safe and it is heart-thumpingly exciting.

CAGE CONCERN

Children and non-scuba divers can also observe shark behaviour close-up courtesy of Dive Aquatica, a company that runs one-day snorkelling trips for those aged six and up. The Aquatica leaves San Pedro Harbour for open water near San Clemente Island. Chum is dumped overboard and while the group waits for sharks to arrive, Captain Manny Koch builds their anticipation with slides and tales, so when the first dorsal fin cuts the water, there are screams of excitement.

An 8x16ft diving cage is lowered into the sea and passengers kitted in wet suits, masks and snorkels step in. Uniquely, this cage has no roof and the top bar remains 2ft above the water line. With a depth of about 4ft, snorkellers can stand up in it if they want to. Blue sharks are the most common visitors. They like to skim the surface and come within inches of the cage, so floating in the metal box is a way of being at their level and seeing the ocean from a shark's point of view. Experienced scuba divers are welcome on these day trips and, with proof of diving certification, can interact in open water with the sharks.

TOUCHY TYPE

By now, you may be feeling so fond of sharks that you want to smooch one. If so, Team Shark is the outfit for you. Principal John Manley is a marine biologist who has studied sharks for years. Shark education and conservation is highlighted on these scuba and snorkel adventures. John jumps overboard to hand feed the sharks and chooses a blue shark no longer than 5ft that he wrestles onto the deck. It is subdued by pouring salt water into the gills while anatomy is explained and the fish is tagged as part of an on-going research project. Now is the chance for a goodbye kiss before it is returned to the deep.

Contacts

Psalty Adventures, San Pedro, California (001 310 714 0548; www.psaltyadventures.com): $850 (£475) per person for a three-day trip and $995 (£550) for four days. This includes round-trip airport transfers, all food and drinks tailored to prior requests, and an overnight stay on the boat in port. Psalty V is comfortable and well equipped for entertainment with stereo and VCR.

Air, tanks and weight belts are supplied, but not wet suits nor masks - these can be rented from Pacific Wilderness (see below), a dive shop adjacent to the boat's berth.

Dive Aquatica, San Pedro, California (001 818 400 7439; www.diveaquatica.com): a day trip costs $179 (£100) per person and this includes meals and air for tanks. Snorkel equipment and tanks can be rented from the company, but scuba divers should bring all other kit.

Team Shark, Redondo Beach, California (001 714 267 9875; www.teamshark.com): $140 (£78) per person for a day-trip and this price includes a wet suit only. An on-board galley sells food and drink.

Dive equipment can be rented from Pacific Wilderness, San Pedro, California (001 310 833 2422; www.pacificwilderness.com).

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