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Swimming in an Uncertain Sea

by Mary Sewell

In the muffled quiet, a steady inhale-exhale. A shadow, then a flash of silver. Then the elusive subject of fascination makes its silent, gliding approach, emerging in total: the great white shark. When the underwater filmmaker Ron Elliott dives beneath the surface, this suspended moment of magic is what he’s after. I first met Ron more than a decade ago, several years after he had begun documenting the undersea world of the Farallon Islands, the remote, saw-toothed crags some 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco.

The Ohlone people called them the Islands of the Dead; 19th-century sailors called them the Devil’s Teeth. The Farallones sit at the western point of Northern California’s “Red Triangle,” where large numbers of great white sharks come to feed on seals and sea lions in the fall and winter months. A former commercial sea urchin diver, Ron transitioned from fisherman to filmmaker around 2005, when he discovered that he liked observing the sharks in this isolated patch of the open ocean more than just about anything else.

He became friendly with the shark researchers stationed on Southeast Farallon Island, providing them with the novel, in-the-wild footage of the shark population. There, underwater, he finally found calm and quiet beauty. It became 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 hair-raising encounter that reverberated around the diving world. After multiple surgeries and grueling physical therapy hours, he returned to the water a year later.


Throughout our friendship, I’ve coaxed Ron onstage to talk about his longtime fascination with the Farallones; I even wrote a book about him a few months ago. The unusual pull he feels to swim toward sharks — instead of away from them, like the rest of us — is something I’ve always wanted to understand. He got sober from drugs and alcohol in 1975 and discovered diving shortly after. He originally came to diving as a balm for his brain. “For the mental aches and pains — it was like taking ibuprofen, for my mind,” he said recently.

In other words, right around the time that “Jaws” colonized the American psyche, Ron was swimming against the current as an urchin diver along the California coast. (He is among the few to dive around the Farallones without a protective cage.) The whales cruising by, the blooming clouds of krill, the long tendrils of a jellyfish trailing off into the inky dark. He loved all of it. The sharks were interested but left him alone as he learned to handle himself in the environment. Fear didn’t enter the picture.

In time, Ron began sharing underwater photographs and videos with his family, local shark scientists, and eventually with researchers with National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Now that all of us are trying to get back in the water, so to speak, I asked Ron to share a bit of his remarkable body of work and to talk about what he’s learned from his time in the ocean.

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