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One With Jaws: On Sharks and Fear

A group assembled around great white shark in Key West, Florida. | Photo: Art Stickel, Courtesy State Archives of Florida/Dale M. McDonald Collection

Everyone loves a shark story. The other day, as we tucked into hamburgers at a restaurant a stone's throw from the beach here in Ventura, a friend told me about a shark he had once spotted only a short distance up the coast.

He leaned forward. People always lean forward when they commence a shark story, as if you can test the veracity of the tale by their breath.

"Dude," he said. "We were walking on the beach and we saw this sea lion. It was acting kind of weird and then I saw this big fin. The next thing I knew, the sea lion was gone. Just blood in the water."

He leaned a little closer.

"Right off the beach, dude."

He bit down on his burger. I couldn't help but notice how sharp his teeth were.

I would like to report the name of the beach. It's a scant sea lion toss from a surf spot I frequent, and this would surely cut down on the summer hordes of visiting inlanders who are currently cart-wheeling down the faces of our waves in truly dangerous fashion. But I am leery of purported shark sightings, even from the ketchup-anointed breath of trusted friends. More important still, with due respect to Hollywood a sighting does not constitute an imminent frenzy of attacks from which even helicopters aren't safe.

Not long after hearing this story, I received an e-mail from my friend Chuck, linking me to several articles about a recent spate of shark activity off Cape Cod where he lives. The first article reported that a man swimming off Truro was bitten on the foot by a great white. The second article reported that a 12-foot white shark was spotted six feet off a Wellfleet Beach. I waited, but no more e-mails came. It is possible my friend Chuck has been snatched from his living room.

A few days after Chuck's disappearance a young great white was hauled into our very own Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, caught inadvertently by fishermen who brought the five-foot male in so researchers could tag it. The shark was released, its subsequent tracking now part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Project White Shark," aimed at preserving great whites and educating the public. Neither is an easy feat. As Peter Benchley once wrote, "It's hard to build a constituency for an animal that may decide to eat you."

The root of our ribald shark fears, and the essence of most shark stories, is soundly anchored in our fear of being devoured, although, really, the odds of this are quite long. "We're not just afraid of predators," wrote Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. "We're transfixed by them..."

When my friend told his story, it wasn't the sea lion out there, it was me. I felt the sea lion's visceral pain. I'd bet you did, too. Eaten by a shark. You do not feel the pain of your fellow citizens killed by vending machines that fall on them after being jostled for a soda or a reluctant quarter. Even though they are also more apt to kill us, we do not fear dogs, cats, or cars.

Back to Peter Benchley. Those of you who were around in the 1970s recognize Benchley. He wrote a book called "Jaws." In 1975 the book became a movie. For many, the ocean was never the same. Benchley's world changed, too. In the ensuing years his fame earned him time with marine biologists, fishermen, divers, and other assorted experts on shark behavior. He came to sorely regret he ever wrote "Jaws." He had, he said again and again, unfairly demonized sharks. The real demon was elsewhere.

For a long time now I have kept a file of clippings on sharks. It has become a very thick file; its girth not unlike that of a great white itself (I know, I could scan all these clippings but I like the way old clippings yellow and the food stains are like a trip down memory lane). Sharks on my mind, I returned to my folder. There were articles about shark fishing tournaments, about shark attacks, about shark feeding operations, about an increase in attacks on sea otters and, my personal favorite, an article uncovering a plan by that devious revolutionary Fidel Castro to launch trained killer sharks against the U.S. To check the veracity of this last story I Googled Fidel Castro. Indeed he was still alive, although busy working on a book. Having written several books myself, I can tell you he is too busy to train sharks. It is also true that the same issue of this particular periodical featured a story about a three-breasted woman and a three-armed man having a three-legged baby.

Having spent my life around the ocean, I have some small personal experience with sharks, too. Once on a surf trip in Indonesia I jumped from a boat and almost landed square on the back of a blacktip reef shark. I have had the good fortune to dive with sharks on numerous occasions. Once, off Beqa Island in Fiji, I watched two female bull sharks, eight feet long and thick as trash barrels. They moved sleepily at first, investigating the floating chunks of tuna, while we divers, appropriately, knelt on the bottom. Finally one of the bulls opted to feed. In a blink, languid nonchalance turned to focused perfection. In less time than it took you to read (and count) these 14 words she devoured a pot roast chunk of tuna with a series of convulsion that would have snapped the spine of a lesser creature. Then she swung easily up into the sun-splashed shallows, pausing for a moment, thick tail still, while the equatorial sun sent ribbons of light wavering along her sides. Outside of each morning when I wake to my wife, it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I also know a man who was attacked by a white shark (he survived). It does happen.

No doubt, few things generate more interest than sharks. I'm betting Benchley had files upon files bursting with shark stories. He certainly knew there was no shortage of reportage. Sharks, he once noted, "are the alpha predator in the food chain of news-making events."

Wherever Benchley got his information, it changed his mind. He became a champion for sharks, although it's doubtful as many people read his book "Shark Trouble: True Stories and Lessons About Sharks and the Sea" as devoured "Jaws." He turned from fiction to fact. On average, less than a dozen humans are killed by sharks each year. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year by fishermen. There has been a drastic decline in the numbers of nearly every species of shark. At our hands, Benchley's white shark may ultimately succumb to extinction.

Forget for a moment the far-ranging ecological repercussions of the elimination of an apex predator. Because there's a further ranging point still. One of my most treasured possessions is a dog-eared copy of "The Outermost House" by Henry Beston. In it Beston writes, "We need another wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals... We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

Personally I believe my friend's shark story, just as I believe the surfers a mere hundred yards away were perfectly safe.

And if they weren't, well that is our part as a stitch in the fabric of this world.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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