Great white shark off Hilton Head
Ernest Hemingway wrote one of my favorite scenes in literature.
It’s in “Islands in the Stream,” a book published after the author’s death and one that is not usually cited as anyone’s favorite.
In the scene, the protagonist’s young son battles a swordfish — the biggest any man on board can ever recall seeing.
For hours the small boy fights the 1,000-pound fish.
He becomes bloodied and sore. He becomes burned, chafed and exhausted. His brothers worry he’ll let the fish kill him and that their father, who understands what this fight will mean to the boy for the rest of his life, will allow it to happen.
The boy, David, never gives up.
Then he loses to the beast.
And it is over.
Later, while David recovers below deck, he reluctantly shares his feelings with his father, his brothers and the crew.
“Well,” David said with his eyes tight shut. “In the worst parts, when I was the tiredest I couldn’t tell which was him and which was me.”
“I understand,” Roger said.
“Then I began to love him more than anything on earth.”
“You mean really love him?,” Andrew asked.
“Yeah. Really love him.”
“Gee,” said Andrew. “I can’t understand.”
“I loved him so much when I saw him coming up that I couldn’t stand it,” David said, his eyes still shut. “All I wanted was to see him closer.”
I thought of this scene Wednesday when I chatted with longtime Hilton Head Island charter boat captain Chip Michalove the morning after he had landed a great white shark off our coast.
Ever since he was a boy, fishing from the beaches of Hilton Head and dreaming about one day becoming a charter captain, he just knew there were great whites lurking not far in the waters beyond.
And he wanted to get close.
Just to see one.
At least once in his life.
In the past year Michalove, of Outcast Sport Fishing, has become known for his success with great whites, hooking five out of the six he’s tried for this winter and landing three, this being his third and his largest.
It only took him 12 years of trial and error to get to this point.
“I knew they were here,” he said. “I didn’t know where. I didn’t know what they were eating, their migration, their season. It was 12 years of putting the puzzle together.”
On Wednesday, Michalove was delirious, both from fatigue and from joy.
The left side of his body was deadened after the more than four-hour fight with the 2,500-pound apex predator, a fight that ended in the pitch black on the night of a new moon.
In fact, the only light available as he removed the hook from the shark, a wild creature that would surely rip off his arm if given the chance, came from iPhones.
With help from Troy Bowman of Tennessee, a client who was on board, and John Brackett, another Hilton Head charter captain who abandoned his dinner at the Skull Creek Boathouse to come to Michalove’s aid, Michalove was able to land the shark.
Near her dorsal fin, he attached an acoustic tag, which was sent to him by a scientist from Massachusetts who will track and study her behavior.
He took a DNA sample from her pectoral fin.
And after he unhooked the shark, he made sure she was strong and healthy before letting her swim away.
Before all this, though, he put his hand on her nose, then lifted her so he could see inside her mouth and know what tools he would need to unhook her.
“It’s indescribable,” he said of his encounters with the great whites. “It’s the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. … This is better than the lion, the tiger, the gator. This is the pinnacle of all animals. I’m ready to give my whole bank account up to chase great whites.”
Great whites — and sharks of all kind — have long been an object of human fascination. “Jaws,” documentaries, a whole week on the Discovery channel, and OCEARCH, the nonprofit research group that allows shark fans to track tagged and named sharks as they migrate up and down our coast, have helped fuel the obsession.
I had to know what it was like to actually touch a great white. To put a hand on skin most of us will never touch.
It’s why I called Michalove.
The great white’s skin, he said, feels rough each way you move your hand. On most other sharks, it’s rough one way and smooth the other.
But touching the shark is only half of it, he said.
“You’re looking this thing in the eyes. If this thing could talk … the things it’s seen, the places it’s been, things we don’t know anything about.”
Beyond this, Michalove said, great whites are highly intelligent.
They know what’s happening to them when they get hooked. They know how to sever the line right at the wire to get away.
The shark he caught Tuesday afternoon, which he will likely name Wild Cat after his favorite college basketball team, charged at his boat, a 27-foot Glacier Bay Catamaran.
He swears she was three-fourths as wide as the width of the boat itself.
At her thinnest point, she was as thick as a man’s waist.
Bowman, the client onboard Outcast, had what could be described as “limited” experience with a reel prior to this trip, never mind any experience at all with a great white shark.
At times, he got a little nervous.
And at one point, Michalove just about had a heart attack.
But they both got the show of a lifetime.
Soon after the shark was hooked, she shot out of the water killer whale-style.
Straight up. Straight out.
The splash she made, Michalove said, was like that of a bus that had been driven off a cliff.
It caused Bowman to have a personal moment.
“Dear God,” he gasped.