In defense of sharks

I’ve never met a shark I didn’t like. Okay, okay. So before I met them I might have thought they left something to be . . .avoided. By dint of their reputation, by misrepresentation, by their toothy, ice-eyed grins. Based as my fear was on disinformation, my reaction to sharks — before I began associating with them — might be the very definition of prejudice, no?

The other day, on the news, was video of a great white shark writhing, bloodied, out of a cage meant to protect divers observing their behavior. Well, turn about is fair play, if you ask me. That shark was baited. Sharks do not have a reverse gear; if they are swimming full bore toward something, realize it’s a) an obstacle, b) a trap, they cannot do anything about it except swerve. The bait was just to the side of the dive boat. He had not time to alter course. When he barreled after the bait, he barreled into — indeed right in to — the cage. Trapped in its tiny confines, the shark panicked. Thrashed and eventually threw himself out of the top hatch and escaped. The diver was unscathed, and of course has a story to tell that his progeny will carry through the ages.

But all the media sympathy was for the diver. Mine went whole-heartedly to the shark. The clip played over and over. Blood leaching from the creature’s gills. Injured, terrified and lured into both. Sorry, guys. Bad judgment on the part of the dive operation. Mean-spirited thrill-seeking fools at the expense of another sentient creature.

So let me regale you for a minute with some personal shark stories. Stories that find the majesty as well as the mystery in these ocean predators, the beauty as well as the beast. Apart from harmless nurse sharks sleeping peacefully in 60 or 80 feet of water under a coral ledge in the British Virgin Islands, my first genuinely thrilling encounter with sharks was in the Galapagos. I was on a live-aboard dive boat in the northern most islands, Darwin and Wolf. I only had 25 logged dives when I embarked on this adventure for ‘advanced’ divers. I was, in so many ways, in over my head. We were at 100 feet, give or take, with a perceptible current when we encountered three different types of schooling sharks. Sharks, in other words, filled the sea around us. White-tipped sharks, Galapagos sharks and the weird-looking hammerheads. A heart-stopper, I can attest. But my dive buddies were more experienced. When they found a handhold on the volcanic ledge, the three of us held up, more or less crouching behind a rock. Why? In order to entice these timid gentle giants to come closer! And they did. When we were still, their curiosity was peaked. They circled around us, came in close then swerved away, swam above and below us. Not a single shark gesture of aggression, and there must have been 50 of them. Just curiosity to match our own. Both species wanted a closer look at the other.

Years later, diving on the Great Barrier Reef, again on a live-aboard, we were offered the opportunity to take part in a shark experience.  In 60 feet of water, giant cages were in place to protect nervous or inexperienced divers. Those with more than 50 dives under their belt could, if they wished, if they dared, simply lie on top of the cages. That’s what I chose to do. A barrel of chum (fish bits and pieces) was lowered into the water about 50 feet from us, and we waited. But we didn’t have to wait long. They soared into feed. It was dramatic, even violent, but with 20 or more of them fighting for food, no blood was shed, shark or human, and when it was over — and it was over very quickly — they vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. Proof they were not remotely interested in us? When they swam directly over me, they were close enough to buzz me with their wake, maybe even a brush with a dorsal fin. I felt them pass over me. I was not frightened; I was awestruck.

Sharks get a bad rap. Warming waters are forcing species out of their comfort zones, like the great whites appearing as far north up the eastern seaboard as Cape Cod and the islands (the setting for Jaws at a time when great whites were never seen in those waters). The Chinese misbegotten idea that shark fin soup will increase their sexual prowess results in the criminal butchering of live sharks for their fins alone; then they are thrown back to die. Surfers, kayakers, boogie boarders and swimmers occasionally run afoul of sharks, often because they look like their favorite food — seals. Moving objects on the surface, especially if wetsuits are worn, can look to a shark’s less than perfect eyesight like a seal. But worldwide, the average number of fatal shark attacks is 4.2. This is not to say there are no rogue sharks, any more than one could say there are no bad dogs. But they are rare.

And whether you like them or not, fear them irrationally or with cause, sharks play a critical role in our ocean ecosystem. They are at the top of the food chain. When their numbers decline precipitously, other marine creatures are negatively impacted. Sharks are crucial to maintaining the delicate balance that makes for a healthy ocean that is achieved when all players, from the smallest zooplankton to the blue whale, are in full and vigorous play.

I don’t think sharks are cute. They certainly are not cuddly. But they are majestic, graceful, sleek. I admire them and I most assuredly respect them. And I welcome the opportunity to be in the water with them where their interest in me is matched by mine in them. Just so long as I’m at depth where I cannot be mistaken for lunch on the surface.

Indeed a prized possession are a pair of tiny shark teeth I scavenged from the bottom after my Great Barrier Reef shark encounter. Perhaps it was the original owner of these teeth who stirred the water just above my back. And so I had them made into earrings.img_1950As I said, I’ve never met a shark I didn’t like.

—Belle Songer

Crossing over

The work we do as a team, Cajun and I, so often is of the unremarkable. We work for two therapy dog organizations, one that allows us to choose our venue; the other that places us every week at the local hospital.

But let me introduce you to Cajun. She is a chocolate field lab rescued from the wilds of Louisiana, a state so entrenched in inhumanity to animals that they are routinely discarded — tossed into dumpsters, thrown out of trucks along roadsides, abandoned in the woods, shot, starved, abused for sport. There, in the deep South, there are no leash laws and no one spays or neuters their dogs. Or cats. These animals are merely dispensable. If they don’t hunt, get in the way, are an obstruction to a new life, or any life, or produce unwanted pups on your watch, they are dispatched in the most expedient way possible.

So Cajun was observed for weeks by her eventual savior chained to a tree in a white trash trailer park. No food. No water. Then, one day, she ate her way through that chain — a survivor at any cost — and made her way to the very road from which she had been observed. Free at last, she was picked up immediately and given a second chance at life. That observer figures Cajun was being held to become a puppy mill mamma. That bad luck changed to golden opportunity with her rescue. Two months later, she was crated and place in a box truck and thereby made the exodus out of the South to us in Massachusetts.

Fast forward to now. Cajun is seven. She has worked as a therapy dog, brightening people’s days for the last four years. It is our way of giving back. On one notable occasion we are visiting a group of seven or eight girls in lockdown. This means, Cajun and I are escorted through as many as six steel doors to get to them. For one half an hour, 30 short minutes, they are children playing with a dog. All thoughts of loneliness, anger, abandonment, rage vanish before a dog rolling on her back, exposing her stomach to them in a gesture of extreme trust, and they forget. Forget why they are there, forget why it is they are supposed to be angry and simply play with a dog.

These are all ‘special occasions’ for us. That 30 precious minutes of abandon. But there are, too, magic moments where we know we have connected in a very special way. In one of these groups of children was a girl who no longer wanted to be thought that. She had changed her name to a boy’s name. As we did introductions, the others in the circle chided her, made fun of her wanting to be a him. But we, Cajun and I, accepted her new ‘me.’ I called her by the name he wanted to be called. And Cajun simply nuzzled him with the love she gives unconditionally.

But the most profound difference we know we have made, Cajun and I, happened at Emerson Hospital this summer. We arrived on the floor we visit weekly and were asked to go first to see an elderly man who was agitated and unhappy. It was clear to me the nursing staff was grasping at straws to comfort this man, and perhaps, maybe just the thing, was a visit from a dog.

With his permission, Cajun hopped up on his bed and lay down beside him. I don’t know how it is she knows but she absolutely does know when a human really needs her. A dog lover from way back, he immediately began to smile and rub her ears, and she, in turn gave him gentle kisses. I did not see an agitated, miserable man. I saw a guy engaging with an animal he loved instinctively, and the two of them, old gent and aging dog, bonding in a hospital bed.

A week later when we returned to the hospital floor for our regular visit, the nursing staff took me aside and told me what a gift Cajun had been to that man. Within an hour or so after Cajun’s time with him, he peacefully slipped away. Cajun, the staff told me, had given him the peace and comfort he needed to relax and let go.

Hocus pokus, you may well say.

But I am reminded of a tee shirt a friend once gave me and which I wear on all our therapy dog missions. It reads: Angels are Sometimes Disguised As Dogs.

— Belle Songer

 

Grimspound

Stonehenge is vastly over-rated. By far and away, the standing stone circle of Callanish on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis far outstrips Stonehenge for both majesty and mystery. It helps, too, that the buses and tea shops and gift shops have yet to invade the windswept furthest recesses of this outer Scottish island. Neolithic. Bronze age. A site of prehistoric religious activity for 1500 years,give or take. Walk among them and it is impossible to deny the eerie sense of Time, stood still, stood on end, and someone watching.

But it was in Devon last month that stone circles took on dramatic new meaning for me. On Dartmoor alone there are more than two dozen of them, about which virtually nothing is known except they are stone age, they were erected deliberately by men, granite boulders and plinths weighing tons upon tons. In addition, there are lone menhirs — gigantic single stones set on on their ends for what purpose no one can say — and clapper bridges (more on these shortly).

Our mission was to take a walk upon the moors and, oh, see what we could see. The first thing noted on our map was Kestor settlement. Vocabulary lesson #1: ‘tor’ means a pile of granite rubble blown clean of vegetation and sandstone by millennia of wind blast, atop a hillock. On the top of a smooth hummock, an outcropping, no, an uprising, of craggy granite. Below this tor, a circle of piled, not standing, stones, a permanent encampment where guys without tools assembled these boulders to form an enclosure for their rubble huts and livestock.

A mile or so further on, we came upon our first clapper bridge on the moors at Scorhill. Arguments abound over the etymology of this word but it’s either from the Anglo-Saxon (cleaca, meaning ‘bridge of stones’) or more likely from Medieval Latin (clapus, meaning a ‘pile of stone’). Neither origin does this structure credit. A clapper bridge is a gigantic lintel of granite, weighing, say, in one case,  eight tons or more and measuring 6.5feet wide by 13feet long, put in place over a brook or river. From bank to bank or on piled ‘posts’ made of stacked stones. Their simplicity is gorgeous, their engineering incredible. The two we ran across bridged simple grazing streams, making possible cart travel from one side to the other. But men without tools, without machinery, but probably lots of free labor, managed to manhandle these goliath stones to fit their will and purpose.

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No much further along we stumbled upon a standing stone circle. Far more primitive than either Stonehenge or Callanish but manmade, man-purposed and monolithic. Who built these circles and why are questions begging answers that will never come. These moors, once densely wooded, were clear-cut by those stone age laborers so thoroughly that now the soil is too acid to promote any growth other than sheep forage. So acidic, indeed, that all traces of ancient man have been literally dissolved — bones, hides, pottery eaten into oblivion.

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Days later we actively sought out another Bronze Age site called Grimspound. Vocabulary lesson #3 — pound as in compound, as in impound, as in dog pound. An enclosure. Build on the slope of a hillside, this vast circle, maybe 100 yards in diameter and up to nine feet thick, was, like the Kestor settlement, an encampment. A community. Within the tumbledown circular wall that remains today, a collection of smaller rubble-foundation huts. Fodder for imagining the unimaginable: how did they manage to construct this, move these huge stones to their will, place them on top of each other or upright? Once a large and vital community of herders who surrounded themselves with this formidable wall of stones, they sought not to keep things out but to keep themselves and their animals in. Safe. Together. A granite embrace.

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We are so smug in our 21st century selves. So sure of our cultural and technological and engineering superiority. But what of us will remain to ignite the imaginations and awe of onlookers three thousand years from today? What of our world will so survive?

—Belle Songer