Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, December 13, 1999

Tiger shark’s roving
eye reveals little

LAST week, quite unexpectedly, I found myself face to face with a 7-foot tiger shark. There was no mistaking what kind it was. With its conspicuous round head and dozens of dark stripes running down its sides, this shark was as distinct as its feline namesake.

Mesmerized, I watched the shark swim past me and caught a brief glimpse of its roving eye. Up and down it moved, then forward and back.

What messages were those busy eyes delivering to the fish's brain? I wondered. Did the shark have feelings? Or was this animal simply on biological autopilot all its life, swimming without thought or emotion to find food and mates?

That dark, piercing eye reminded me vividly of the one other time I was eye to eye with a tiger shark.

I was riding in a Boston Whaler in the clear, shallow waters of French Frigate Shoals, the atoll housing the research station of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

It was a calm and glorious day. As I soaked up the beauty of the atoll's white-sand islands and turquoise lagoon, one of my colleagues shouted, "Shark!" I looked to where he pointed, and there in the clear water, not 10 feet from the boat, the dorsal fin of a huge shark was smoothly breaking the surface.

WE eased closer until we were gliding parallel to the slow-moving creature. The boat was 17 feet long, the shark about two-thirds that. Pale stripes marked its back and sides.

I was gaping at the enormous fish, just a couple of feet from the rail now, when a veteran biologist in the boat suggested we take turns looking at the shark. We could don dive masks, he said, and briefly, one at a time, hang our heads over the side.

"Is it safe?" I asked.

"It's cruising for seals and albatrosses." He shrugged. "You don't have to do it if you don't want to."

But I did want to. With heart pounding, I quickly pulled my mask over my eyes and nose, took a deep breath and dipped my head into the water.

The shark, not three feet from my face, eyed me coolly. I stared back, watching that black pinball eye move around its socket. Was the shark interested? Confused? Annoyed?

I didn't have long to wonder because I soon had to come up for air. My two colleagues took their turns, and then, in a flash, the shark was gone.

WAS our peek at this big predator really safe? I'll never know. But I do know that my second tiger shark encounter, where I was even closer to the fish, was 100 percent safe.

That's because this shark was in a tank at the Maui Ocean Center Aquarium.

Although this second encounter wasn't dangerous, I still got chicken skin as I watched a scuba diver in the tank try to feed the shark.

The tiger ignored the dead fish this time, but I learned later it often takes such offerings. So far, it has never hurt the hand that feeds it.

The Maui Ocean Center staff caught this shark by hook and line in Maui waters last February. After a traditional Hawaiian blessing, the then approximately 4-year-old shark was placed in the 750,000-gallon tank, called Underwater Journey, where it thrives to this day.

Tiger sharks in aquariums are rare because they are more difficult to keep than other shark species. If this individual shows any signs of decline, the staff will release it back to the ocean. Right now, however, this tiger is healthy and growing.

We humans will never know what a tiger shark is thinking, but it's a remarkable experience to look into those dark eyes and imagine.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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