I'm hyperventilating into my regulator, shivering hard as clouds of bubbles race toward the shark cage's metal bars. It's September – damn cold for the coast of San Francisco – and this wetsuit feels like it's filling with ice slurry. I lose my grip on the cage and spin off-kilter. Breathe, I tell myself, just breathe. The spaces between these bars are bigger than I thought: Could a baby white shark nose its way in? More fits of panicked bubbles.
On the converted coast-guard cutter's top deck, meanwhile, fellow wetsuited tourists sip hot soup and scan for signs of sharks: dead seal carcasses and dive-bombing birds. We're 41 kilometres west of the Golden Gate Bridge, anchored at the Farallon Islands – and if there's a chance of encountering the ocean's most feared predator at this time of year, it's here.
Sixteen shark species migrate past the Farallones, a federal marine sanctuary known for its abundant biodiversity. They include some of the largest documented white sharks on the planet, more than five metres long, which return each fall to fatten up on seals and sea lions before heading to the eastern Pacific. There are also grey, blue and endangered humpback whales, and the largest seabird rookery in the continental United States. They all come for a movable feast at the Farallones, created when frigid, nutrient-rich water pushes up the continental slope.
The sharks, in turn, attract biologists, and lately tourists, but the latter's presence in this sanctuary is controversial.
We're two hours from Fisherman's Wharf, at the only easily accessible place in North America where you can cage-dive with white sharks.
"We have this amazing environment," said Greg Barron, director of operations for excursion organizer Incredible Adventures. "How is the public supposed to care about this place if they don't even know it exists?"
On lucky outings last season, three whites circled under this very cage; another breached over it, taking a chunk out of a seal-shaped decoy. But a previous year, orcas chased all the sharks away. Barron wants to up the odds that his customers will see sharks on a dive – to 90 from about 50 per cent – by scenting the ocean with fish blood, as is done in South Africa, Australia and Mexico (the other places where white shark tourism exists).
Mr. Barron argues that tourism is crucial to conservation, raising awareness of the 70 million to 100 million sharks that die annually due to habitat loss and a brutal global fishery that hacks off fins for soup, and jaws and teeth for keepsakes. His permit doesn't allow scenting, though, and regulators here oppose it for anything but research, fearing that it may alter behaviour. (In fact, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary website lists tourism as a "threat" to sharks, alongside the fin fishery and curio trade.)
So my dive resembles a heart-pounding version of whale-watching: I wait, breathing from a line connected to a scuba tank on deck, hoping for something fierce to show up.
As it happens, a dozen silken puffs of orange as big as pumpkins glide by, rhythmically sucking water in and out, like air. I remember an Australian researcher I met once who described jellyfish as the oceans' trees, plentiful and ubiquitous. Their soft shuddering calms me. My breathing slows. Though none of us sees sharks today, we end the nine-hour excursion with a greater appreciation of this place.
My husband, Mike, and I ride cable cars afterward, and dine on sustainably caught fish and spicy ceviche at the Embarcadero's star restaurant, La Mar Cebichería Peruana (where I learn the trick for quelling a mouthful of Peruvian aji limo: chug half-and-half cream!).
The area, minutes from Fisherman's Wharf, has several massive port terminals that have been redeveloped to house trendy restaurants and shops. Past midnight, traffic breezes by on the multilane thoroughfare before us as we wait for a cab at the Ferry Building, next to La Mar. The sidewalk is deceptively bare because substantial nightlife is in full swing inside these vintage buildings.
The next morning, we check out of Cavallo Point Lodge, our Sausalito resort – chosen for its LEED Gold environmental rating and Golden Gate view. Breakfast is in a restored artillery barracks on the parade ground of old Fort Baker, a military base built in the 19th century. I make a mental note to stay in one of its Colonial Revival officer's quarters on our next visit, before it's time to drive an hour northeast to Sonoma. Part two of our weekend getaway consists of banishing disappointment at not seeing sharks with some fine organic wine.
Pickup trucks are our companions on the road, here in a county that's refreshingly less glamorous than Napa. After dropping off duffels at quiet hideaway Kenwood Inn and Spa, we head to Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen.
Benziger has been attracting buzz for its organic, biodynamic winemaking, and our tractor-pulled wagon takes tourists from England, Italy, Colombia and Texas to view gardens that refresh the soil, and an insectarium home to bugs that naturally curb any vine-eating pests, leaving the vineyard to operate chemical-free. Outside, workers race to harvest from vines that range tidily up the slopes of an extinct volcano, ahead of a forecast calling for rain. Dark clouds are gathering beyond these pale rust-coloured hills, and I think: We've beaten the weather. Seems our luck has turned.
Special to The Globe and Mail