I've been reading The Biology of Sharks and Rays
by A. Peter Klimley. In the book's opening, he mentions that humans feel insecure around sharks. I think that "insecure" is much more apt a word to choose than "afraid." Dogs, for example, have strong jaws and teeth made for tearing flesh and grinding through bone. I feel perfectly secure around my dog, because our relationship is established, I know she has been vaccinated against rabies, and I know where and how she spends her time. A wild animal, one that you have never met before, is an unknown quantity. The first time you meet that wild individual, you might, at minimum, feel insecure.
November 3 through 9, 2013, I visited the Bimini Biological Field Station
, informally known as Sharklab. Sharklab was founded by Dr. Samuel Gruber
, who is a celebrity in my world. When I first learned about Sharklab in the early 00s, I wanted to go there, but I didn't know that it was a thing that could be done. So, several months ago, when I saw they were promoting the Naturalist Course on Facebook, I knew I had to go; how often do dreams come true? pamelonian
, one of my best friends and a very experienced traveller, signed up to go with me.
When we got to Sharklab and were given our room assignments, the call came that Doc wanted us to suit up for a swim with Caribbean reef sharks; we had thirty minutes to get ready. I had just unzipped my duffel. Conditions were windy and the seas were less than placid. I got my suit on and my snorkel gear ready. In short order, we were on the boats and headed to the site.
I felt insecure.
A line was stretched from a anchored buoy to the main boat. Doc was throwing chunks of fish to the sharks on that side of the boat. We were to jump in on the opposite side of the boat and swim around to the line, grab on, and be shoulder to shoulder so we could observe the sharks feed. We were to kick with our fins if the sharks came too close to us or tried to pass between us.
When I jumped into the water, I was surprised by being suddenly in the company of three passing reef sharks. They were a little bit lower in the water column than I was, and their path was perpendicular to mine. Accounting for the way things look closer through a mask, underwater, I am guessing they were four to five feet away. They looked at me, and I looked at them. Caribbean reef sharks have beautiful eyes. They were headed toward the area where the food was splashing into the water. I thought to myself, Well, you need to swim over to the line, so swim on over.
I just put myself on top of the water and snorkeled over the tails of the passing sharks. Photo by Pam. This is actually from the second dive with the reefs, but is still a fair representation of what we observed when the sharks were feeding.
The cultural narrative around sharks is really a goddamned mess. People really do seem to think that sharks indiscriminately devour absolutely everything they encounter. When I returned to my routine existence, I had to field questions like, "How did you not get bitten?" "Why didn't they attack?" and "Sharks bite, don't they?" After spending a week surrounded by sharks and a couple dozen other people who love sharks, I was a bit thrown by the questions.
There are only about a hundred shark attacks reported each year. To put that is some perspective, think about how many human beings spend time in the sea each year. Diving, snorkeling, surfing, spearfishing, swimming; think of all the crowded beaches and all the hundreds of thousands of presumably tasty humans that spend time on coasts and at sea. Think of the fact that it is possible to get attacked by a squirrel, and a squirrel can fuck you up. Think about that the next time you check your mail, landlubbers.
Chances are excellent that you will not be attacked by a squirrel. Chances are also excellent that you will not be attacked by a shark. A shark is not going to hide nuts in your wheel wells and sabotage your car's brake system. I'd go further into that, but it's not my story to tell.
Anyway, it should not have come as a shock to anyone that I returned from Bimini with all my arms and legs, fingers and toes. It's totally possible to be in the company of sharks and not be sampled. In fact, if you have swum in the sea, there were probably sharks nearby, whose presence you never noticed.
When I was six, about to start second grade, I was moved to Corpus Christ, Texas. The first apartment complex we lived in was right on the bay. There, right there, was the sea. I loved living on the coast. I loved having access to the Gulf of Mexico. I loved the beach, I loved the waves, I loved the wind. I also loved the very idea of sharks and rays. I wanted so much to see them, to swim with them. To tread into the fantastical, I really wanted to *be* a sea creature. A shark, a dolphin, a ray, a whale. I felt the greatest kinship with sharks; contributing to that was probably that I felt misunderstood, myself, but the grace, beauty, and strength of sharks and rays captivated me on contact, as they have many other people over the course of history.
In my next post, I will start from the beginning, and take you through my trip, based upon pictures, my fragile memory, and the journal entries I made each night after days full of sharks and new friends.