Fearsome sharks merit respect
Last week, an 8-foot-long shark bumped a Maui surfer's knee and then bit his board. This was the fourth close shark encounter on Maui since May, and although no one was injured in those incidents, they must certainly be generating fresh fear and loathing.
Not that those sentiments aren't already common. "Why don't they catch them all and just be rid of them?" a Maui visitor said to me about sharks.
"Sharks are part of the ecosystem," I said. The man just shook his head and walked away.
OK, my answer sounded a little lame even to me. Sure, sharks are part of healthy oceans. But a few species out there can eat us. It's normal to be afraid of those sharks.
But that doesn't mean we can't also admire them. Last week, U.S. biologists reported a great white shark named Nicole swam from Australia to South Africa and back again, covering an astonishing 12,000 miles in nine months.
Whatever else you think of sharks, you have to marvel at that female fish's awesome feat.
The study sheds new light on the notion that female great whites are exclusively coastal animals. At least some of these big fish spend time in the open ocean.
Some of us sailors also spend time in the open ocean, but sharks there are a rare sight. During my passage from Palmyra to Tahiti, during which we sailed 3,200 miles while staring at the ocean hour after hour, day after day for three weeks, we saw just one shark.
Alex called me from the cockpit to see a pod of pilot whales swimming about a quarter-mile behind the boat. We stood on the aft deck and watched at least a dozen of the small black whales swim, blow and dive.
"Look!" Alex said then, pointing to a large shadow swimming behind the boat. We couldn't judge its length, given the boat's wake and our excitement at seeing that dark shark shape, but it was a big one.
The shark swam to the transom, circled behind the boat once and then disappeared. We guessed the creature was hanging around the whales looking for a meal opportunity and spotted the boat. When it found no food potential there, it lost interest.
Days later, the wind got so light we were sailing only 2 knots (Nicole averaged 3), and the air grew sweltering hot. Alex asked me if he could hang off the transom's swim ladder and get wet. "Absolutely not," I said. "No trolling of the crew."
His begging was effective, though, and I finally let him descend the ladder for a quick dunk while tied firmly to the boat.
It looked so refreshing, I then did it, too.
"Did you think about sharks while you were down there?" I asked him afterward.
"Constantly," he said. "You?"
When it comes to entering the ocean, each of us must make our own decision about sharks. The Maui surfer decided to surf at a different site. The Maui tourist wouldn't get in the water at all. And I'm in the middle. Sometimes I'm afraid of sharks, sometimes I'm not.
But whatever mood I'm in, I never ever wish them gone. Sharks are part of the ecosystem.
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