South Africa Part 3: White Shark Acrobatics

 

Thanks to Sam McWilliams for this great footage. I’m glad my cries are a bit muted on this one!

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The Path of Playing Cards (Or the Gospel of Salty Junk)

On Tuesday afternoon, walking to the parking garage after work I passed a perpetually trash-strewn patch of plants and stopped to free a Macy’s bag impaled on a  thorny branch. Grumbling with fatigue, heat and misanthropy, I snatched the bag and tossed it in a trash can, not feeling quite self-righteous enough to recycle. 

In the trash barrel, I noticed a tiny card from a children’s game. Delighted, I snatched this vintage treasure from the bland refuse that surrounded it. The illustration showed a fisherman hauling a net of blurry colored trash from the edge of an unseen sea. I found the title vaguely obscene: Salty Junk. I couldn’t imagine where the hell this old sod had come from. All I thought of was a haunting story I’d read in the New York Times about the debris field left by the Malaysian plane that crashed in the Ukriane, how the writer reconstructed passenger stories through objects: Bali guidebooks, passports and a scattered deck of children’s playing cards. 

I tried to engineer a reverse synchronicity in my mind to make the discovery feel inevitable. Hadn’t I just been thinking of how I’d make all of these entries into a book?  Hadn’t I just been thinking, how much I’d actually enjoyed cleaning the little piles of dead balloons and tar balls off the beach, especially when my friends came with me? Could the universe, my throbbing narcissism insisted, maybe be acknowledging me for my own modest harvests of salty junk? 

My love for piles of free and abandoned things aside, I don’t know why this little card had the force of revelation to me. I dug through the can, but found no other tiny red cards among the Subway wrappers and coffee cups.

The Wednesday walk to my car was similarly uneventful. But today, past the trash can where the concrete sidewalk curves up the hill, I found another tiny red card  face down on the ground. I turned it over as if awaiting a revelation from the Tarot. There she was: Wacky Witch like some emissary from childhood classrooms dressed up for the New England fall, the green faced dime-store hag with cat, owl and cauldron, her leering face somewhere between a comic strip and a tribal mask.  I scanned the brush for more cards, but found nothing. To what scattered and abandoned game these old icons belong I will never know. But I sensed their odd, intermittent path was something I was meant to follow. 

saltyjunkWackyWitch

The Circus is Over (If You Want It)

The Chik-Fil-A cows danced, but no one seemed to be having much fun outside the Citizens Arena in Ontario, California. The costumed shills gyrated, goofed and sauntered in that exaggerated “Keep on Truckin’ ” stride almost universally adopted by all mascots and theme park characters.

 Chik-Fil-A, the proud sponsor of Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, had also erected a towering inflatable cow complete with rainbow wig near the ticket booth. I wondered about that wig. Was it all part of the “whackiness” of Chik-Fil-A’s campaign (a cow nervously recommends that people eat chicken instead of beef, ha ha), or an acidly ironic nod to the gay community?

 Aside from a couple flair-ups, one involving a vociferous woman wearing a sweatshirt featuring a bald eagle flying above the word “Alaska” who said, “NO, I DON’T WANT ANY LITERATURE. I DIDN’T COME TO THE CIRCUS TO SEE THIS SHIT,” the afternoon had a strangely muted, solemn and even desperate feeling. Maybe it was my projection, or maybe it’s just because parenthood is hard work, but many of the adults looked lost and tired. While some of the kids, too young to read, pointed at the signs and said, “We’re going to see tigers!” others looked rather solemnly at the images of downed, shocked and bull-hooked elephants.

 I felt sorry for these kids. The little girls in their pink ballerina skirts, magic wands clutched in their hands, made me think of the human longing for transcendence, our lust for the extraordinary. Who wouldn’t, regardless of their age, desire something beyond the bland landscape of business parks and box stores of corporate-sponsored arenas? For these children with their fairy sparkle shoes or super hero t-shirts, seeing a tiger jump through a hoop of fire might mean feeling the distance between fantasy and reality shrink just a bit.

 But kids also respond very powerfully to the truth.

 The most persuasive activist of the day was a child. Danielle was ten, I think. She wore elephant-patterned leggings and carried a red construction paper sign. On one side a circus elephant with a broken spirit languished in a muddy pen. On the reverse an adorable baby elephant, giant ears spread, galloped through the African landscape, trunk held aloft.  “Take some information,” Danielle said gently, but firmly, passing out flyers to families,  “Did you know that they hurt the elephants?” Some kids looked up at her with wonder, others kept their eyes focused on the ground.

 Maybe I still had some leftover optimism after the San Diego screening of “Cowspiracy,” at which the filmmakers said with a kind of quiet confidence, “This (meaning factory farming) is ending.” I feel the same way about animal circuses. Even if “ending” means decades, the Chik-Fil-A cows couldn’t dance fast enough to convince me that anyone at the Citizens Arena truly believed that anything about this kind of outmoded spectacle felt remotely magical to anyone.    

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Under The Boat

Nice views here of two white sharks, one with a lovely speckled sort of pattern on the tail. I love how they simply disappear into the green. I also love how the divers in the cage keep their feet off the bottom of the cage. There is a weird sensation of suddenly not having legs when one is deposited in the cage, followed by a desire to keep track of one’s legs as much as possible.

 

(Thanks again to Peter E.) 

My Very First Shark Breach

Okay, first off thanks again to Peter Eisenhauer for shooting, editing and sharing these great videos of a truly magical time in South Africa.

Please excuse my orgiastic screams. This was the first shark breach I ever saw so I got a little carried away. After a few more breaches, I was able to tame my insanity into manageable sighs of awe.  

Taking the Bait: Cage Diving Day One

Many thanks to my “cage mates” Andria and Peter Eisenhauer for this footage of a white shark snacking on fish heads. Seeing that jaw drop down was one of the peak experiences of my life.   I love the contrast of the underwater sounds and the shouts of the crew on deck.

More soon!

South Africa: Part Deux

I am trying to write and remember more about South Africa, before the memories take on the feelings of dreams, before mundane realities of day-to-day life in L.A. eclipse my beautiful visions.

Here are a few things I can’t stop thinking about:

1. The time I felt most sacred: when a stray piece of bait floated in through the viewing window of the cage. No shark in sight, but I instantly flung the fish head back out into the water just the same.

2. My first full day in South Africa it rained. Apex kindly arranged a wine-tasting tour for us. It felt funny getting slightly drunk on very fragrant wines so early in the day, but I managed to get through it. At one winery near Stellenbosch(?) I stood next to a roaring fire, petting a fat, contented calico cat. A group of school kids on a field trip tramped into the room and collapsed on chairs around the fireplace.  They were probably only about 15, but holding their glasses (each one with a swallow of gold in the bottom), scarves wrapped about their necks, they looked impossibly sophisticated. As one lovely dark-haired girl approached me, I had that incredibly rare and warm feeling that I was acting in a scene from a movie. I told her that “my fellow Americans” and I had come to South Africa to see the sharks. She looked wistful. “Once I went diving with ragged tooths. One shark was pregnant and as the sun slanted on the water, I could see her babies inside.” She looked so happy remembering this, her cheeks flush with the fire. A dashing schoolboy approached us, gently breaking her reverie. Maybe it was the wine, but everything felt effortless and scripted at the same time. “Do you mind if we take a photo with you and your friends?” he asked. “It’s not every day that we meet Americans.”

3. On my last day at sea, the swells were high and dark. We weren’t sure if the sharks would come. But they did. Standing on the deck of the boat, as the dark water rose around us, and a near 15-foot shark surfaced near the side,  I felt empty in the most beautiful sense of the word: empty of everything except the moment of witnessing: the fin, and tall, sharp tail, then the shark itself, turning on its side, white belly flashing in the sun, jaws opening, closing, then sinking beneath the waves again.

4. Looking at the eye of the shark as it swam close to the cage and feeling recognition, but not knowing if this meant that the shark saw me, or I saw myself in it.

5. All the terrific people I met: Chris and Monique Fallows the most gracious hosts and enthusiastic naturalists in the world, Renee and all the great people at Apex Predators, Carrie from New Hampshire with her bright enthusiasm for South Africa and her saint-like patience with annoying peopleSimons-town, Sam who worked at a farm animal sanctuary in Wisconsin and had an uncanny eye for spotting seal predations and her husband Brad who told great stories, Janet with her quick wit and impressive collection of shark swag who gave us all shark neckties, lovely Christine from the U.K, a fourth time visitor to South Africa who knew all the sharks on a first name basis, our kind, funny and amazing guide Alistair, our patient and helpful B&B host Jonathan, generous Peter from Buffalo and his wife Andrea who didn’t even swim yet plucked up the courage to climb in the shark cage anyway. Thanks to everyone who laughed at my jokes and everyone else I’ve forgotten and thanks especially to the sharks for showing up and changing my life.

Should I Get a Bigger Boat? Shark Attacks on Boats, People, Dogs and Seals

Events like this make me feel lucky to live in California.

This August 8 lecture at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum with shark legend Ralph S. Collier  and Peter Howorth promises to be fascinating!
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Should I Get a Bigger Boat?

Shark Attacks on Boats, People, Dogs, and Seals

by Ralph S. Collier  (President, Shark Research Committee)

and Peter Howorth (Director, Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center)

 Where: Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, California

When: Friday, August 8, 2014 • 7:00pm

Cost: $15 (SBMM and Shark Research Committee members), $20 (non-members)

To Register: Go to www.sbmm.org or call (805) 962-8404 x115

What should you do if a shark takes a fancy to your boat?  Yes, this really does happen––boats have been attacked by sharks.  Find out why this happens and much more as Ralph S. Collier, the west coast’s leading authority on shark attacks, explores various theories on why sharks attack everything from surfboards to boats, and from crab trap floats to people.  Learn what makes a shark tick and why it is such a supremely well-adapted predator.  Discover from Peter Howorth how attacks on marine mammals can serve as canaries in the coal mines, warning people of shark hazards, and what is being done about this.

If you are in the Santa Barbara area on August 8, 2014 please stop by. Directions to the Museum are available on the SBMM web site when you order tickets. After you order tickets please notify the SRC so we can place you on our Members list for this event. For confirmation of SRC Membership, and to obtain the $5.00 discount per ticket, please print out and bring this email. Seating is limited so order your tickets today. Thank you and we look forward to seeing you August 8th at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.