Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sharks, Sharks, Sharks and Other Scary Things in the Sea

Shark Week!
Every summer I make the dubious decision to watch Discovery Channel’s notorious documentary marathon chronicling the lives, eating habits, and often enigmatic behavior of the class of fish called selachimorpha…more commonly known as "sharks." I watch as swimmers and surfers and snorkelers recount their terrifying limb-losing encounters with these toothy beasts. I watch as researchers intentionally encounter the biggest and baddest sharks using cages and sometimes, amazingly, not using cages. I watch as skilled and brave (or retarded?) men and women free-dive with tigers and great whites and makos…holding cameras and sticks. Sticks. I am not kidding. Some guys just hold a stick and prod the enormous beasts as they swim by. I am totally seduced and often unnerved as I sit on land, on my couch, in the relative safety of my home, watching intently and waiting for the next gush of on-screen blood.

There are about 340 known species of sharks and most of them are not dangerous to human beings, and yet, the very word “shark” can increase the pulse rate of anyone who ventures into the sea or even dreams of doing so. And for good reason. Although most sharks are benign to us humans (and the odds of being attacked are minuscule), the one’s that are dangerous earn their reputation with dramatic flare.

I grew up in Southern California, North Orange County, a place with wide sandy beaches, relatively warm sea water, sunny days, and an entrenched and growing surf culture. I grew up in the water, surfing, swimming, body-surfing, and laying on the beach studying the waves. When I was a little kid I rode the county bus to the beach (25¢ each way) with a boogie board under my arm and wearing a towel-stuffed backpack. It’s what we did in the summer. As I got older, we added beer and teenage self-consciousness…but in the summer, to the shore we went, without fail. And there I still go every summer, without fail, to ride my beat up old longboard on the small crumbly summer waves of Seal Beach or to sport my fins and bodysurf in the beach break at Scotchman’s Cove. In all my years, and I am “middle-aged” now (so that’s a lot of years), I have never heard of great white sharks near these beaches. I have heard stories of encounters near Catalina Island, 26 miles west of the mainland. But not near Orange County Beaches…not until recently.

They’re Here!
It started a couple years ago when a colleague (a surfer) mentioned something about two great whites that were “hanging out” at San Onofre Beach. Excuse me?! I was stunned and begged her to tell me it wasn’t so. It was so. Witnessed by many surfers she had talked to personally. And, I soon discovered, it was being reported in the papers and on the TV news. Not in SoCal! Not near “my” beaches! Yikes.

I currently live in Northern California, in what is commonly referred to as the “red triangle,” an area roughly marked by Point Reyes to the north of San Francisco, Monterey Bay to the south, and out to the austere group of rocks known as the Farralon Islands. The Farralon Islands serve as a base for shark researchers who suffer the harsh conditions offshore so they can observe and study the habits of great whites. This area has long been referred to as the red triangle because of the number of great white shark attacks on humans. According to wikipedia, this area marks 37% of recorded great white shark attacks on humans in the USA, and 11% worldwide. I don’t surf in the red triangle. The waters are cold, often rough, and home to the carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. No thanks.

I do, however, sail these waters and I have to admit that when I venture out under the Golden Gate, into the red triangle, I think about the potential consequences of my little boat sinking. Although hypothermia would surely be the death of me, the thought of being eaten by a shark is much more dramatic and horrifying.

So you see, sharks and the thought of sharks, have always been in my life in a relatively immediate way, a "just under the surface" sorta way. And all this shark week shite got me to thinking about my own handful of actual and would-be shark encounters. Yes, I have had a few, although never was I in danger, as far as I can tell. But each encounter had it’s own thrill.

The Early Years

My first encounter with a living shark occurred when I was a kid walking along Bolsa Chica Beach one evening after a day of swimming in the waves. The sun was just below the horizon and I walked up to a fisherman who was casting into the surf and standing next to a 5 gallon bucket. Always intrigued by the sport, I looked into the bucket to see what the angler might have dragged from the sea. And there it was. A shark! It was about 16-18 inches long, grayish blue, and very much alive. I stood there, my young self, contemplating the fact that I had spent the day swimming in the water from which this man had just reeled in a shark. I wondered “who” else was out there and had been swimming next to my adolescent legs and torso all day! And even more alarming, where was this little guy’s mother?! Rational or not, these were the post-Jaws (the movie) thoughts of a SoCal girl who was obsessed with swimming in the ocean. In the years that followed I had other encounters with dead sand-sharks washed up on shore and other fisherman casting into the Jetty at Seal Beach or off the local piers and reeling in a variety of small sharks and rays that I inspected as I passed by.

Missing the Big One
The biggest shark I almost saw was the one that got away in the Caribbean last year. I was diving off the coast of Utila, Honduras, a place known for whale sharks, those plankton eating gentle giants. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea growing up to 40 feet long and weighing as much as 14 tons (see pic with snorkeler)! We had just finished an afternoon dive when our captain received a call on the VHF that a whale shark had been spotted offshore in the deeper waters they prefer. We tossed our mooring line and the captain throttled down as we all held onto the boat hoping we would get a glimpse of one of these generally shy animals. When we reached the area where the whale shark had been spotted we were instructed to don our snorkel gear (SCUBA bubbles can scare the fish away) and sit at the rear of the boat ready to slip quietly into the water. We crouched and waited, breathing in diesel exhaust, hearts pounding in anticipation of swimming with the giant fish. But after an hour of looking the crew concluded the giant fish had apparently taken a dive, literally. Bummer. A big tease. So lets head to the shark capital of the world!

The Big Bite
It was a hot sunny day on the windward islands of the Bahamas, a place known as the shark capital of the world because of the diversity and numbers of sharks found in these tropical reef-strewn waters. My friend John and I were fishing in about 60 feet of water a mile and a half offshore of Elbow Cay, a small cay east of Abaco Island. There was a moderate swell that gently rolled under the 19 foot center-console fishing boat that I had rented to explore and fish the islands. Sweating under the tropical mid-day sun, we cut and threaded bits of squid onto our hooks, weighted the lines, tossed the tackle overboard and fed it to the bottom, and then waited. Within minutes John yelled “fish-on” and started reeling. “It’s pretty big” he added as we both went to the edge of the boat to see what he had hooked. We could see the fish coming up and just as it broke the water a large set of shark jaws rolled over and chomped the fish off the line. Stunned, John and I littered the air with expletives as he pulled what was left of the fish onto the boat. He had caught a large trigger fish and all that remained was a bit of the head and a few straggly remnants of the entrails…all in the very distinct shape of a shark jaw. Fuck an A! We were thrilled and pumped!

Looking through my polarized sunglasses, I immediately started studying the water around the boat. Grey shadows everywhere. Very large gray shadows swimming under the boat….5, 6, maybe 8 foot long shadows criss-crossing under the boat. I turned to my fishing buddy, “John the most important rule today, stay on the boat!” I wasn’t kidding. As we bobbed in the Atlantic swell I suddenly felt quite small and vulnerable. We were surrounded by sharks. Then my rod bent. Fish on. I started reeling but the fish was gone in seconds. The shark took the hook and all this time. We tried a few more times, getting hits quickly and just as quickly losing our catch to the gray beasts below. We were no longer fishing, we were feeding the sharks. We cranked the boat and headed closer to shore into a shallow cut between two cays. We fished the rest of the afternoon, catching enough porgy and grunts to feed the whole family. Although our offshore fishing left us with only a part of a fish head, we had logged an experience that few folks can claim and one neither of us would ever forget. A close encounter with a hungry shark!

The Sandbar
The next day we anchored the boat on a shallow but sprawling sandbar know as Tahiti Beach. We waded through waist deep crystal clear water, walking on white coral sand 200 feet from shore. We gabbed about this and that when suddenly a three foot long baby lemon shark cruised slowly by us…maybe two feet away from where we were standing. It all happened so quickly that John and I just stood there and watched it gracefully swim by. Hello. There was nothing else around and in the still tropical water, the view of this gorgeous fish was clearer than a National Geographic photograph. Cool. Very cool. But I did wonder where it’s momma was. Or it’s brothers and sisters. Time to head back to the boat!

The Reef
The next day we motored out to an underwater preserve in a large cut between the islands. A heavy swell was rolling in unabated from the Atlantic and the afternoon sea breeze added some chop to the seas. We tied our boat to one of the park mooring buoys, donned our snorkel gear and rolled off the boat into the surging water. In about 25 feet of water we swam over the sprawling reef teeming with fishes…and among them several species of small sharks, only inches or a foot long. In a small patch of sand among the coral, a five foot nurse shark sat almost motionless on the bottom. We stalled, moving our fins just enough to fight the surge and keep us over the shark while we studied her. Who knows for how long? Damn. Shark capital indeed.

The Hunt
John and I also spent hours snorkeling on the sprawling reef off the beach in front of our rented house on Elbow Cay. We attempted fishing with a Hawaiian sling, a spear with a bungy tied to the end and loaded by stretching the bungy and grabbing the spear (see pic). To shoot you simply aim and let go of the spear while holding the bungy, like a giant rubber band the bungy shoots the spear towards the target. We spent hours stalking giant groupers that knew exactly the range of our spear and stayed just beyond it. They seemed to laugh at us as they moved with the grace of a bullfighter avoiding a goring…I am sure if they could speak English we would have heard an incorrigible ”are you fucking kidding me? Amateurs!.” We tried hitting snappers, grunts, porgy…miss miss and miss again. We took turns, snorkeling in compliment, sling holder always in front, the other moving to stay behind the hunter (we did not want to catch each other on the end of the spear). For hours we snorkeled and fished. Nothing. Hawaiians we were not. John tagged one fish but it swam away surely becoming someone’s meal shortly after.

And then it happened. I aimed, let her rip and bam! Nailed it. Through the body of a ten inch snapper! I grabbed the sling and immediately pulled the speared fish out of the water and above my head. All I could think about was sharks! I suddenly pondered the wisdom of swimming with a bloody fish in the shark capital of the world! I swam a side stroke towards shore holding the fish out of the water and watching the blood of the stuck creature slowly running down my arm. “Must reach shore before blood reaches water. Must!” I swam like a champ and crawled on shore with my meager, but hard won catch. No sharks. And in retrospect, my frantic swimming and pounding heart were probably much more of a shark attractant than a little bit of snapper blood. I'm such a pussy. Nonetheless I stumbled onto shore the proud hunter.

The False Alarm
On another trip to the Bahamas John and I fished and snorkeled the bay between Harbor Island and Eleuthera.* One day we anchored the boat and donned our snorkel gear and started exploring some scattered reefs. After a rather frustrating and completely unsuccessful attempt to catch a spiny lobster for lunch, we stumbled upon a rather large colony of brain coral sitting lonely in the middle of a large patch of sand. It was a large dome about five feet tall and easily as wide. It was pretty cool looking. Then we left.

The next day we went to the same location and I lead a rather reluctant and inexperienced snorkeler towards the coral, excited to share the cool spectacle. About ten yards away I suddenly saw a large fish about a foot above the coral staring directly at me, head on. Thump thump thump went my chest as my first assessment tagged it as a shark. But the fish quickly shifted slightly sideways exposing it’s mass and I saw the unmistakable under-bite of a great barracuda (see pic). That fucker was easily 5 feet long and meaty. I have swam with barracuda before, young ones in small schools that seemed very comfortable with my presence, but this giant fucker stared us down, staying right above the brain coral as though to say “this is my brain and you ain’t invited.” I motioned for my companion to stop which he did and then he quickly started swimming for the boat. I stalled for a minute, staring at the incredible fish and then I slowly started swimming backwards, fins in front of me, never taking my eyes off that sucker as he held his ground over the coral. Several yards away I lost visibility but continued to swim backwards and look in the same direction.

The Future
In 2007 I was laid up for a week because of a surgery I had and my sweet younger sister flew up to Oakland to help me out. This particular week just happened to be Shark Week. So our days were pretty much an alternating pattern of eating, napping, taking drugs (me only), and watching Shark Week. By the end of the week Marcy and I had made a pact to head west to Hawaii and take a turn in a shark cage. We shook on it. We’ve reconfirmed our commitment many times and when our schedules and bank accounts finally line up, we will do it. Bring it on!

The End. For Now.

* I struggled to learn how to properly pronounce the name of this island and would often blurt out the word “urethra” instead of "Eleuthera", a mistake I am sure would not be appreciated by a Bahamian. But I cracked myself up with my lameness!

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