Time to unveil an obsession of mine that anyone who has known me for only a few minutes probably knows: sharks. I love these fish. This coming from someone who is afraid of things like the dark, flying (infamously so, now, I bet), the toilet flushing (when it's late at night and you're disoriented, and it's loud, it freaks you out!). Not to mention my aforementioned #2 consuming phobia, which is still on its way. (It's not that weird/big a deal...I don't know why I'm making a procession out of it. I just want a guaranteed blog post idea in my arsenal). But all these things aside, that fear is not present when I'm with sharks. I've gone swimming with them before and, believe me, would love to do it again and again, and plan to.
That's an interesting story, actually, the time I went swimming with sharks. I'll start off with that. My parents and I were visiting my brothers, all three of whom live in San Diego, and went to La Jolla for the day to go snorkeling. We went to a cove that was famous for shark sightings, and I couldn't have been more excited. Ever since I was really little, every time we went to the beach or on a boat, I would be preoccupied by staring out at the endless water and just searching and mentally urging that sleek fin to cut the surface. Even now, when I know how unlikely it is (probably not going to see any sharks at Boston Harbor, Hampton Beach, NH, or York, Maine, the seaside locations I most often frequent these days), I still do it. So to have been on my way to 99.9% guaranteed sharks, and not only expecting to see them from afar but to be in the water with them, well, it was a big, big deal. I set out into the water first, backward, as flippers behoove one to do, and my brothers, followed my my dad, shuffled in after. After swimming out about fifty feet or so from shore, I thought I'd take a beek below and see what was going on. As soon as I got my face under, I froze, not out of fear, but really just shock/excitement. The water below me--around me, at this point--was teeming with leopard sharks. For those who don't know, leopard sharks are mostly found in the Eastern Pacific, along the shoreline. They are between five and seven feet (the ones I swam with were bigger than me) and their usual diet consists of octopi, shellfish, crabs, and rays. They've been known to mutilate their prey, taking a chunk out of part of it but leaving the rest behind to die. Although their teeth are absolutely capable of biting human skin (hello, they eat crabs), they are not known to be aggressive toward humans. In fact, as with most sharks, humans do much more harm to them than they will ever do to us: the species is widely sough after by fishermen in and around San Francisco Bay for their (apparently) flavorful meat.Anyway, as you can see they're pretty big guys, and they do, indeed, look like sharks--as compared to some of the other species that you can usually find while snorkeling, such as Nurse sharks, which look like they wouldn't hurt a fly. Unless, of course, you're lucky enough to be snorkeling off the coast of South Africa or Australia, and then you're snorkeling with Black and Whitetip Reef sharks, which are known to be dangerous, and, luckier still, Great Whites. My brothers couldn't deal with it...Brad yelled out, "Hey guys, there are sharks in here!" and eventually my three former Navy and Marine brothers made their way little by little closer to shore until they were sunning themselves on the beach next to my mum. I think I stayed in the water for about an hour after that, just enjoying being with the sharks. It was the strangest feeling in the world because, as much as I love them, I'm not going to be ridiculous and say that I never have that eerie feeling whenever I swim out too far in the ocean. When I was snorkeling with them, whenever I'd come above water to rest and bob around and knew they were underneath me, and felt them bumping into my feet, I totally felt that primal rush of fear. But when I was down with them underwater, swimming alongside them and touching their dorsal fins, it was one of the most serene experiences of my life. I'd kill to be able to relax like that every day!
Now it's Shark Week, one of my favorite weeks of the year, after Homecoming and Christmas and my birthday. I've watched Shark Week every year since I was probably eight or so, and I've seen some of the programs over and over. Sharks are starting to get really trendy, which I guess is fine since I understand all there is to love about them, but I also kind of liked when loving sharks was weird and reserved for me. I've always wanted to be a marine biologist, or an ichthyologist I suppose, since I'm totally uninterested in currents, algae, tides and all that jazz. Through as recently as the first half of high school I had thought I would be able to make my life around studying the ocean and sharks, even though I've always also had a passion for writing and literature (and that seems to be where I'm headed now, going into my third year of being an English major). It was really unfortunate that after taking some AP sciences in high school and trying out Oceanography freshman year of college, I definitively decided that I really don't enjoy science. As much as I want to, my brain can't seem to wrap around it. And as much as I'd love to be that person that gets to travel around the world on boats and narrate Discovery Channel programs about sharks and feed them chumsicles and go in cages with them, I'm a. miserably seasick, b. lacking in a science background and c. terrified of flying, as I would guess is obvious by now.
I'm really impressed with how Shark Week is becoming as humanitarian as it is entertaining. Right now on the DC website they're promoting a petition in coalition with Ocean Conservancy to end shark finning and urge senators to pass the Shark Conservation Act of 2009, introduced by Senator John Kerry in April. Please sign the petition here! It only takes a second and hopefully it can stop a practice that unjustifiably kills millions of sharks each year. When sharks are finned, fishermen slice off the fins but throw the carcass back into the water, which is not only cruel but wasteful. The demand for these fins comes not from any sort of health benefit that can be obtained by them, but for a soup. 73,000,000 sharks die each year for an overpriced appetizer (a bowl of shark fin soup in high-end Asian restaurants can cost $100. What's wrong with Miso soup?) Even if you're not an animal-saving, petition-signing, chaining-yourself-to-a-tree conservationist (believe me, I'm not really close to that side of the spectrum, either), the damage toll we're doing to the sharks is affecting us indirectly through the resulting ecosystem imbalance. Like scallops, oysters and clams? Well, if the sharks are disappearing, their usual prey increase multi-fold, and in turn consume tons more of these popular foods, limiting the amount available for not only human enjoyment at the local clam shack, but also putting fishermen out of jobs and damaging small seaside communities' economies.
Well, that was my public service annoucement for the day, but that brings me to Goal #2 for the Upcoming Year: get involved in the Shark Conservation Act of 2009. This means that I'm going to write letters and send emails Senators and Representatives in Congress and urge them to pass this act, strengthen the existing shark finning in the ban in the U.S. by also banning the removal of shark fins out at sea. I'm also going to write letters to the Departments of State and Commerce and urge them to help enforce international shark catch limits. I want there to still be sharks left in the water for me to continue to snorkel and to dive with!
A fun fact that I never knew about sharks: last night I watched the program "Great White Appetite," and watched a 14-foot female Great White eat seven whole tuna in one sitting. She ate over 20% of her body weight (roughly 500 pounds!) The human equivalent of that would be a man eating 40 pounds of sushi in one meal. Pretty gluttonous.
Oh, and one more thing: the giant ad at the top of the Discovery Channel Shark Week page was for Long John Silver's.
[Images from MIT, Elasmodiver, Discovery]