Meeting with great white a great thrill
LAST WEEK, a 17-foot great white shark made front-page news
when it showed up in Haleiwa waters and stuck around for 45 minutes. That wouldn't be particularly newsworthy except at the time, eight people were there watching the huge fish from a cage.
Eventually the tour boat captain left the safety of the cage to fulfill a lifelong dream: swim with a great white. He did that, even touching the shark's sides and fins, and emerged without incident.
At one time in my life, I would have thought the man was out of his mind to do this, and part of me still does. Yes, the shark was calm, but apex predators can afford to be calm. One good chomp takes care of any annoyance or threat that comes their way, and even if they're just curious, well, sharks don't have hands. They investigate the unknown with their mouths.
Another part of me understands the man's desire to leave the cage. We animal lovers do crazy things sometimes to get close to the creatures we admire.
YEARS AGO, I was boating with two other biologists in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands when we spotted a dark shape in the water. The driver headed toward the shadow, and when we got alongside it, our jaws dropped. It was a tiger shark only a few feet shorter than our 17-foot boat.
Like the great white last week, our shark was calm, swimming alongside us until we weren't sure who was following whom.
Our driver suggested we each don a dive mask and hang over the side of the boat to get a better look at the shark. One of us could drive, he said, while the other hung on to the back of the viewer's life jacket.
Incredibly, this seemed like a great idea. I spit into my mask, took a deep breath and leaned over the rail until my head was submerged.
There I looked right in the eye of that big shark and nearly drowned with the thrill of it. The fish's unblinking eye rolled in its socket as it looked at the strange thing, my head, that had appeared at its side.
"Was that safe?" people ask me when I tell the story. I don't know. I only knew that a close encounter with this magnificent animal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I was not going to pass it up.
MOST PEOPLE are alarmed about stories of great white and tiger sharks in their area, but it's the fish that need protecting. In 2004, sharks killed seven people worldwide. That same year, people killed 50 million sharks worldwide. Great white shark populations have declined 60 to 95 percent in different parts of the world.
One of the reasons for great whites' decline is that a pair of jaws can be sold for $10,000 to $50,000. Recently, participants of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species agreed to manage and monitor the trade of teeth, jaws and fins of great white sharks.
Looking into the eye of that big tiger shark was a grand moment for me, but I never considered jumping into the water with it. If I ever get so lucky to see a great white again, a deck or cage will do me just fine.
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