My adolescent fears and phobias were a product of Jaws. That movie and Peter Benchley’s book stoked an irrational fear of sharks, especially of the great white shark. When Jaws and Aliens met in my subconscious my fear migrated to anything aquatic. They were all going to eat me. When I swam in the ocean I made sure never to have a bloody nose or scratched toe. Because sharks can sense it miles away and they were waiting for me, in the ocean, in lakes (as proven by recent b horror movies), rivers and in swimming pools. I knew it.
Like many people my fear turned to fascination and awe. I’ve lived in California for ten years and in that time the Monterey Bay Aquarium has caught six great white sharks. All except the current shark were released after a limited stay. For some insane reason I had excuses the first five times ( student films, daughter being born, new job, son being born, you know excuses). So this time I was determined not to miss the great white shark. And with only a days notice we loaded our three kids and provisions and headed to Monterey.
In an ironic twist one of the west coast’s largest sardine factories has been turned into one of the world’s best aquariums. We were among the first to line up on cannery row to see this fish which had haunted my dreams. A young of the year the shark was deliberately caught off the coast of southern California. Before being brought to the aquarium he was taken to a 4 million gallon holding pen in the ocean where he could be studied and allowed to acclimate to see if he’d make a good candidate for the aquarium. Then he was brought in a specially designed capsule called the “tunabago” up to the aquarium.Drawing at the Open Ocean exhibit is like trying to draw in a movie theater. Luckily I was able to find a sliver of light so I could see my paper.
The great white shark plodded around the giant tank with methodic strokes of its sickle shaped tail. Even though he wasn’t even five feet long he was every bit a great white. It’s easy to see how they were vilified: cold black lidless eyes which change ghostly white when the shark opens it fearsome maw triggering a protective membrane to cover the eye. Then there are the teeth, serrated in ever growing rows. The late Peter Benchley recanted his villainous portrayal of the great white shark in Jaws saying later in life:
“If there is something I’m dead certain of, it’s that I could not write Jaws today. I could not turn this beautiful beast into a villain.”
White sharks are dangerous top predators, like lions and grizzly bears. They are not cute and cuddly they demand our respect and a healthy fear. However, our irrational fear has led us to hunt and slaughter sharks out of fear, sport and food. In recent weeks there have been a flurry of articles and sightings of great white sharks striking fear into the general public. People and media outlets ask;Is it safe to go swimming? Why are there so many sharks? Are there too many seals? Forgive me for answering with a question: Is the ocean ever safe? It is a wild place and wild things can happen. The white shark population for all of California’s water is only between 200 to 300 individuals. Precautions should always be taken when sharks are known to be in the water. The ocean is wilderness and when there are white sharks it is a sign of its health.
The young great white shark swam confidently among schools of tuna and mahi mahi. Having the shark in captivity helps scientists understand its growth rate, caloric and metabolic requirements and when the shark is eventually released the tags will reveal its migratory patterns. As it glided past the front of the tank people gawked and even cheered. This young shark is helping people to have a change of heart, like Peter Benchley the author of Jaws, exchanging a perception of villainous fear to one of admiration and respect.
My eight year old daughter Samea shot this excellent footage of the young great white shark