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