In honor of shark week, I’m dusting off an old piece from my column writing days. It’s from 2006 so the stats might be a bit out of whack.
The waters don’t feel sharky, but I’ve been wrong before.
I’m 85 miles off the coast of Cuba, 40-feet beneath the ocean’s surface. The water is murky and I am tooling along a lengthy coral finger. People dive in these waters to see all of the bright colors and unique fish. All I can see are shadows.
The coral finger is the big unmoving shadow to my right. The small shadows floating around it vary in size and shape; they are fish such as parrot, squirrel, snapper, and angel fish. The large shadow ahead, coming right at me is…oh, wait. It’s bulky. It travels in smooth horizontal movements. Dorsal fin – check. Odd-shaped head with two malevolent eyes unnaturally separated – CHECK! It is a hammerhead SHARK!
The chase begins, but I don’t stand a chance. 400 million years of evolution are against me.
It would be a lot cooler if the shark had moved in for an attack and I eluded it by ducking behind a coral head and then fought it off by wrestling it with its jaws snapping wildly inches from my mask, but this is not the case.
The hammerhead and I are both surprised. I don’t move or breathe. It changes course. I can see the tip of its snout, the end of its powerful tail, and the eight-feet of streamlined predator in between. Quickly, and with little effort, it disappears into the murk. The chase that ensues is my trying to get a better look at the magnificent creature.
Despite what movies like JAWS, Open Water, and The Deep Blue Sea would lead you to believe, being attacked by a shark is very, very rare. There is a long list of improbable things that you are more likely to be harmed by including, earthworms, banana slugs, and toasters.
If you are like me and you are not into tattoos, but do get some strange enjoyment out of scars, which are life’s tattoos, you may be disappointed at the rarity of a shark bite. After all, what cooler life tattoo is there? I am not talking a big bite where flesh is missing or left hanging. A small one, just big enough to be manly, which requires way less than 100 stitches and no physical therapy, would do. What’s cooler? A flaming skull inked on your flabby bicep or a few spaced out scars left by the teeth of a shark?
Acquaintances at the gym would point to your arm in envy. You could say, “Oh that…it’s just a shark bite.” Congratulations, “Shark Bite”, you just got yourself a new nickname.
Most shark attacks on humans are cases of a mistaken identity: surfers look like seals; a white foot in the silt of the shallows looks like a fish. I am not saying sharks are big puppy dogs that you should grab by the tail and give kisses to, although I have seen this being done on shark feeds in the Bahamas, but you are not the one who should be most afraid in a shark-human encounter.
Each year 100 million sharks are killed by humans. We hack off their fins, essential for swimming, and throw their wriggling, bloody torsos back into the water to die slowly, all for a nice bowl of shark fin soup. According to Julia Brown of Halifax University, worldwide shark populations are falling at an alarming rate. In the past 50 years there has been a 61% decrease in the population of large species. The population of white tip sharks, once thought to be the most abundant large animal on earth, has decreased by an alarming 99%.
It is no wonder that the hammerhead saw me and swam swiftly away. We humans are scary.
Seeing a shark while diving is a lot like seeing a police car while driving; you slow down and take stock, “Do I have anything to be worried about?” Once you realize that you are well within the limits of the laws of nature or of the highway patrol, you continue on your way, occasionally, checking your rearview mirror to see if you are being followed.
Sharks are not to be feared, but to be respected. I have taken over 700 SCUBA dives in the ocean and have yet to have a scary encounter with a shark.
The only fish that ever attacked me was a three-inch blue gill protecting her eggs in a freshwater quarry in Ohio. Unfortunately, I don’t have any scars to show for it. It’s probably a good thing; the nickname “Blue Gill Bite” just doesn’t have the same ring.