Day 93: 9/26/13: Befriend a Bull Shark

Bull shark populations have declined up to 90% from finning pressures. You can donate as little as $10 and get various perks: a shout-out on  Twitter or FB,

Bull shark

Bull shark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

a personalized certificate all the way up to an autographed vintage JAWS t-shirt.

Click here to adopt!

Day 92: 9/25/13: Afternoon with a Shark Legend

I am still ecstatic from Ralph Collier’s lecture this afternoon at Glendale College this afternoon. Great turn out–students, teachers from all disciplines, and people from outside school–including one dazzled shark nerd in a Jaws t-shirt who sat in the front row, and my dear friend Lisa and her fellow shark fanatic pal, Jack.

Ralph covered some fascinating stuff about shark behavior including “spy hopping” in which white sharks (and apparently oceanic white tips) stick their heads out of the water to check out what’s happening on land and sometimes startle random seals off the edges of rookeries. They also spy hop to calculate which group of seals in the haul-out area might be easiest to sweep into the water via a giant breach. Essentially, I learned that white sharks ain’t dummies. Not by a long shot. They have memories. They make calculated decisions. Ralph doesn’t believe in calling shark encounters “accidents”–he gives the animals volition—whether the intent is to investigate or to launch a predatory strike.

I learned two more disturbing consequences of shark finning:

1. When the discarded bodies of finned sharks are thrown overboard, they sink to the bottom where ammonia leaking from their ravaged bodies destroys coral communities.

2. Increasing numbers of people in Asia who consume shark fin soup are developing neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and A.L.S.  Researchers have proposed that the high concentrations of mercury in shark fin and flesh bind with other neurotoxins and create a lethal toxic compound. Could this new health concern become a powerful force in stopping finning?

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Day 74: 9/7/13: Save The Turtles (Feed the Sharks!)

A lovely day at Zuma Beach volunteering for Oceana at the Malibu triathlon. Last summer, I asked surprisingly willing triathlon swimmers to sign a petition to protect California’s great white shark population (ultimately the National Marine Fisheries declined despite the dwindling numbers). This year: loggerhead turtles. I had that same squishy uniquely human whose-side-am-I-on-anyway? feeling as I talked about the increased need for habitat for sea turtles, knowing that tiger sharks particularly love to feast on them.

Ultimately I realized that my position as a human isn’t necessarily  to root for one side, but to attempt to restore some part of the balance that humankind with its plastic, its miles of nets and hooks and acidified seas has destroyed. Nature, of course, is often brutal and so I’m moved when people fashion artificial flippers for a sea turtle crippled by sharks.

I know that human belief in our separateness from nature is the root of most of our problems. But my humanness will always make me feel like a distant admirer of animals, an apologist for my species, a loving outsider. As a kid, I wanted to be like Fern in “Charlotte’s Web,”–so much a part of the animal world that they “forgot” I was there and gossiped freely. Now, I don’t know if I seek a window into animals’ secret world  so much as I need an alternative to the crowded, relentlessly human one I inhabit.  Maybe it’s as simple as the epiphany I had a few weeks ago when admiring the crazed smile of a moray eel: “I like the other.

A baby Loggerhead Sea Turtle

A baby Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 73 9/6/13: You Ain’t From Around Here

Calico, California My friend Jennifer and I went to the desert so she could do some research for a novel she’s writing. Somewhere between the sterile outlet malls of Barstow and the kitschy rustic  ghost town splendor of Calico, we stopped by an RV park to ask some general questions about weather, water rights and desert life. The sign indicated that visitors should park on the road. We did, but wandered in the far entrance, toward the little trailer marked OFFICE. The silence of the desert is so startling to me that everything felt a little dreamlike.

Anyway, the suspender-clad bespectacled guy running the Shady Lane RV Court seemed cordial.

After a perfunctory greeting, he indicated that he’d already walked out to the road and checked out my car.

“I have to make sure I know who is walking around here or the guests get nervous,” he explained.

I didn’t see any guests, and attributed his zealousness to boredom, although I had told Jen on the way up the 15 Freeway that the desert seems to nurture a particular kind of paranoia. I don’t know if desert paranoia is different from swampland paranoia, or deep woods paranoia, but my friend Helen and I had experienced a few examples of desert “eccentricity” while visiting a Mojave wolf sanctuary last Christmas.

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Day 69: 9/2/13: A Woman of Letters

Shark fin soup

Shark fin soup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had this bright idea to try to send a letter to every restaurant in the U.S. that serves shark fin soup. So far I’m half way through Massachusetts with a few scattered throughout the South and West.

While a restaurant manager will probably just toss a single, random but polite request in the garbage, if I enlist my student army to help me, maybe we can start making an impact. I imagine truckloads of letters being delivered into steaming kitchens all over the map. Letters are becoming rare things–they have a material weight that e-mails with their digital ephemerality (is that a word?) lack.

Perhaps this accounts for the lack of drudgery I feel stuffing envelopes, buying stamps, depositing messages into the dark unknown of the mailbox.

To access Sharksavers’ resources for restaurant letter writing, click here.

Day 48 8/12/13: Two Blocks of Sea

Today I went to Santa Monica for a beach clean up, but I must have got the details wrong since I couldn’t find anyone there. No loss. The air felt nice. The ocean looked a little bit wild. My friend Jen and I picked a bit of trash here and there and waited out the traffic over beer and sweet potato french fries and talked about the writing life and our fathers who are both gone but who loom large in memory.

At home again, late with homework to do, I still wanted to do something about sharks. Since I’m going to South Africa, I decided to go donate Two Blocks of Sea to the great whites of Dyer Island, a rich nature reserve. The stretch of water between Dyer Island and nearby Geyser Rock (an island home to 60,000 Cape Fur Seals), is also called Shark Alley, a treacherous stretch of sea familiar to anyone who watches shows like “Air Jaws Apocalypse.”   I felt moved by the language of the donation form: 2 Blocks of Sea to the Great Whites of Dyer Island.

On a recent architecture tour in downtown L.A., the docent talked about a guy who purchased “air rights” so he could build skyscrapers. Air real estate. Two blocks of sea. I imagine some cut-away science text book diagram of green-blue water and a curved ocean floor.

Measuring the sea seems like trying to measure time. In November, my father will have been gone a year. But what does one year even mean? In a few minutes, I walk two blocks in a city that is both utterly foreign and oddly familiar. A thousand memory fragments surface and dissolve. Time is scrambled. What does a shark experience in two blocks of sea—the electromagnetic fields of distress, the rise and fall of tides?

Sharks don’t strike me as nostalgic creatures, but I wonder if they experience that confusion of memory when they move through some well-traveled stretch of open oceans only to discover it strewn with a ragged web of nets, or find a channel once plentiful with fish, strangely, suddenly empty.

Day 46: 8/10/13: “Life is a Great Surprise”

The title is a quote from the great Vladimir Nabokov. I always think of Nabokov’s words when I have a particularly lovely experience. Today I went on a hike led by my friend Dan, an intrepid urban explorer. These hikes are always a surprise, as Dan has mapped so many forgotten and unseen places—odd urban pathways between hotels, a gorgeous park that smells of mountain sage hidden in the middle of a desolate nameless neighborhood between downtown L.A. and Echo Park. Exploring the unknown heightens the beauty of the familiar city places:  the gorgeous Victorians of Angelino Heights, the lotuses and lilies of the reborn Echo Park Lake.

I met so many bright, interesting people on the hike–professors of Latin and Math, a fellow English instructor and a guy who told me about rescuing a small blue shark from a reactionary mob of Santa Monica bathers during the height of “Jaws” mania/paranoia. Even though the poor shark was only about three-foot long, the hysterical swimmers and even the lifeguards were ready to beat the creature to death when it beached itself until this kind man set the shark free again in the ocean.

This anecdote is a nice transition to the benefit–using “Jaws” as a tool to save sharks rather than argument for their destruction. In Elysian Park, Dan introduced me to the hikers and I gave a brief little spiel about the JAWS benefit for Sharksavers.

Talking about my shark project, I always try to balance the humor with the dire truth about shark extinction, which is sort of tricky. While I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news,  we tend to forget that we are  living through a mass extinction event. As  Derrick Jensen once wrote, “there is no roll call on the nightly news” for the 200 plants and animals that disappear from this planet every day.

But this entry was about joy. Surprise.

I usually write about “forgetting” in the context of human denial and selective memory. But I’m just as guilty of picking and choosing.

It’s easy to remember the angry mob on the beach and forget the solitary guy who saved the little shark.

Day 40: 8/4/2013: Shark Angels in Santa Monica

After spending the afternoon at a popular seaside tourist destination, I have one, single burning question:

How can shirtless men wear backpacks? Don’t the straps pinch? What about sweat? I’m no fashion maven, but that look is just…WOW…not..good….

Anyway, I had misgivings go to an aquarium. It seems somewhat hypocritical to protest the circus and then support so-called “aqua-prisons,” but Julie Andersen of Shark Angels was giving a talk at the Santa Monica Aquarium and so I paid my five bucks.  The little shallow tank of leopard  and swell sharks that allows kids to touch them, sort of bummed me out, although one of the leopards actually lifted (her?) head out of the water when I approached and I made eye contact with her.

DIGRESSION ABOUT THE AWKWARD DAWNING OF SEXUAL KNOWLEDGE: As a child, of course, the New England Aquarium was mecca to me. I loved the circular tank with the snuggle-toothed sand sharks. I remember once buying a postcard of a sea otter in the gift shop of the NEA in 1976. Otters can stand on their hind legs, and this guy clearly had an erection, captured in the lurid sort of messy color of the old 60s/70s postcard. “He has a hard on!” shrieked my sister’s friend Denise. It was the first time I ever heard the term.

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Day 38 8/2/2013: Absurdly Simple Shark Activism For All Ages

SharkSavers is a great resource.

Click here to find out what restaurants in your area are serving shark fin soup.

Click here to download & print a “FINished WITH FINS letter to send to the restaurant.

This is so cool/cute. Click yet again here to download an educational shark coloring book for your kids or for yourself if the waxy intoxication of crayons makes you nostalgic for those early years when you fell in love with utter terror and majesty of apex sea predators.