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 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 53: 8/17/13: Ruminations on the Dive Manual

The good news is Sharksavers has responded to initial inquiries from concerned activists confirming that they don’t have any plans to collaborate with OCEARCH. I have my letters at the ready just in case.

When I am paranoid about learning something, I tend to over study. I am reading my diving manual like some gripping but arcane novel, whose premise pulls me in but whose language is at times elusive and complex forcing me to backtrack. I tend to remember the morbid facts: that a tight-fitting dive hood can cause a person to faint, or the symptoms that indicate that my lungs have expanded beyond their human capacity.

My lessons start a week from today and my mind is a tumult of childish anxieties: Will I ever look as ecstatic as the toothy, neon-suited dive friends high-fiving each other on the cover of the book? What if my “buddy” hates me?

As I said in a previous post, what I like about diving is the emphasis on breathing–which is what I like about meditation. An activity that keeps me in the moment.  Many people have assured me that the initial anxiety of diving in the ocean for the first time is soon eclipsed by the beauty of the water, the kelp forests.

It’s extraordinary that I am even considering doing this. Kayaking in New Zealand several years ago freaked me out so much that my legs shook and banged inside their plastic prison and I could barely navigate the little lagoon. Everyone laughed at my shark paranoia, but the next morning the cover of the newspaper featured a picture of a giant fin following  a man in a kayak. The picture had been snapped just up the coast from where our group had leisurely paddled.

I loved the ocean as a kid back in the 70s, even in the shadow of “Jaws,” but my paranoia grew as my shark dreams increased. Yet now I see those dreams in a different light–as assertions of kinship, not foreshadowings of my grisly demise.

(BTW: That last sentence would make a bittersweet and ironic addition to my obituary or any news article following my untimely death by shark attack).

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 13: 7/8/2013: Diving Lessons

English: A great white shark approaches divers...

English: A great white shark approaches divers in a cage off Dyer Island, Western Cape, South Africa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I told Greg at Aqua Adventures that I wanted to learn to dive because of sharks, he popped in a film he’d made on one of his annual great white excursions to Guadalupe Island.

Great whites with names like Lucy and Cal Rip Fin (whose dorsal had been nearly shredded—probably from a boat propeller) darted, swerved and snatched bait. One shark leapt over the cage and actually landed on top of it. A thrilling and rare accident, I assured myself, as was the story of the great white that caught his snout in the opening between the cage bars and thrashed around so much that the front panel of the cage collapsed.

Greg and I talked for two hours mostly about sharks and shark conservation. He told me Cal Rip Fin, once a reliable figure at Guadalupe, hadn’t been seen since 2011. He also told me some crazy shark breaching stories, and all the many beautiful and dangerous places he’d gone diving. People that lead such adventurous lives always floor me. I feel privileged to hear their stories.

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