A small praise of Great White Sharks

What’s grey and white and has 300 teeth?

It takes a lot to get me past first gear. Sharks do it. They do it for most people. They stir up some primordial stew in our subconscious. Take the young blonde to my left. She’s about to have the shock of her short life…

Please. Don’t look.

Let me introduce Bruce, probably the most famous shark in the world. If it wasn’t for Steven Spielberg and Bruce and that damn John Williams and his music I would probably still be able to swim in the ocean. Or a pond. Or a river. Or a lake. Or anyplace else that doesn’t have a drain.

This weekend is JAWSFEST, a crazy mix of people in shark hats, oceanographers, movie fans, movie stars, shark watching tourists, marine biologists and the media all cooked up together into a chowder out on The Vineyard. It’s THE place to be this weekend when the island morphs into Amity Island. Here’s the schedule.

Did you know that in just seven days, August 14, Universal is releasing the Blu-Ray re-mastered and up-mixed edition of JAWS? Spielberg oversaw the project, a frame by frame restoration of the 1975 film. Has it been that long? Summer just isn’t the same anymore.

This is the BIG one, the film that kicked off a panic over shark attacks (even if you lived in Kansas), kicked off a fishing frenzy that empowered every macho fishernut with access to a boat and tackle to rid the ocean of its most valuable apex predator, prompted Discovery to do an annual series about sharks and shark behavior that’s celebrating its twenty-fifth season this summer, and spurred a multi-million dollar industry with products named after Jaws.

Let me tell you a quick story: when I was a younger and working at the Plymouth (MA) Town Hall, the Harbor Master, Angelo, a descendant of many generations of seagoing Portuguese, and the man who knew the harbor as well as he knew his own name, suggested it might be a good idea for me to see the harbor and some ocean wildlife.

As we cruised along, getting further from land, and while I was admiring the sea gulls, the sunshine and the…

Wait a minute!

“Why are all those gulls over in that one spot?”

“I dunno, let’s go see.”

“You sure?”

“Yup. Might be something to see.”

When we got closer I could see the water was at the boil. Something I couldn’t see, something huge, was making the ocean bubble and the gulls squawk. I can still remember wanting to roll up into a fetal position in the bottom of the boat. Angelo shut down the engine and there we were, two people in a small wood boat, immobile in the water.

“Take a look.”

Peaking over the side of that small boat was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done. My mind was stuck on “What the hell is that? If it doesn’t see me, maybe it won’t eat me. Can it smell me? Can it smell fear?”

“Stand up and look. And don’t fall over. You might want to brace yourself to keep yourself from bending over the side of the boat.”

Bracing, yes. Bending over the side? No. Not after what I saw.

Twenty, maybe thirty, yards from the boat was the first shark I had ever seen. The dorsal fin is all you really see at first, tall and straight as a mast. It was attached to a dark torpedo shape headed our way. There was a moment when I wondered if this was really happening, if sharks ate boats or just the contents, and would I ever see land again ’cause I’d never leave it again. But the Harbor Master never turned over the engine, never turned the boat. He just stood at the wheel and chuckled.

Coming alongside the boat was a massive shark with a dark grey back, white belly and black eyes. I believe it looked right at me before it treated me to a side shot of its open jaw and teeth as long as my hand and serrated. I was terrified. But I was hypnotized too by the danger and the power of the shark. With a belly roll it sunk below the water. And the boat.

The shark circled for maybe a minute but it made its point. It took me most of that short time to realize it wasn’t intent on ramming the Harbor Master’s boat. The Great White was as curious about the interlopers in its territory as I was curious about how anything so deadly and so grand could be in the ocean. It was like a National Geographic picture come to life for a kid from a place far from the perils of the ocean.

The last I saw of it was the dorsal fin submerging and surfacing, submerging and surfacing as it made its way to wherever it would find another seal.

I look back on that encounter as some kind of religious experience: a mix of fear, panic, and amazement.

I respect sharks. I am awed by them in a way that nothing else reaches me. I believe they are magnificent, completely evolved. On a planet doomed by imperfection and folly, they are perfect lifeforms. A chance for us to reach back through history to a time when the earth was ocean and their giant ancestors ruled the waters.  The greatest of the apex predators.

I worry about sharks and the cruel fishermen who cut their fins away and leave them to drown. Who is the real predator for a bowl of soup?

And I worry about vacationers who don’t have God’s good sense not to play in an area where seals swim. Get the hell out of the water, people.

Most of all I worry that sharks will be blamed for their instinctual behavior that draws them shoreward to the seals that have come closer this summer enjoying an abundance of food and over-heated waters.

Did you know that when you see the video of sharks off the California coast or hear of an attack in that area, that what looks like a shiver of sharks (and, yes, it’s called a “shiver”) is in fact a few of only an estimated 440 Great White Sharks along the entire coast from Mexico northward and across to the Hawaiian Islands? So huge an area of water, so few Great Whites.

Did you know that Great Whites are on the Endangered Species List? It’s estimated that only 3200 of these giant fish remain in the oceans, hunted to near extinction for their teeth that bring $600-$800 per tooth and record prices approaching $50,000 for a full jaw. And no one should discount man’s paranoia of an apex predator that can’t be tamed in an alien and hostile environment in which we are only marginally tolerated. We all need our nightmare food.

I’m with the sharks. I have been since the first time I saw a Great White. There are people who swim with sharks and sharks who allow shark researchers to hand feed them and pat their heads. Is it possible to have a connection with  creatures our media mythology has hyped with words: “savage”, “merciless”, “evil”, “demonic”, “vengeful”, “killing machines”. Do sharks have a life that includes periods of sleep and solitude, rearing young and endless miles of swimming? Do they only eat what they need to survive and not gorge like two-legged predators? You bet.

I love to misquote Alphonse Toussenel, “The more one gets to know of men, the more one values sharks.”

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About Phyllis Alberici

Hanging a few lanterns in the darkness. Let me know how it's going.
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