These are sticky, relatively miserable days in the Boston area. I woke up early this morning and the hot, damp air hit me as soon as I opened the back door to feed the feral cats who live in our back yard (long story). It was just about 7 a.m. For much of the summer you can escape the hot weather for a few morning hours, but now and then we have a stretch of days when thick, lethargic, oven-like air hangs around both day and night. We’re in the middle of one of those stretches now.
It also happens to be “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. I’d like to say I’ve found some sort of clever metaphorical or literary connection between the hot, humid air and sharks, but I really haven’t. The only connection is that I can’t escape either one — the weather surrounds me, and although Shark Week only appears in my living room if I turn on the television and switch to that channel, I find myself doing it night after night. I’m drawn to Shark Week the same way I’ve been drawn to a lot of things that scare me in life. Most of me wants to avoid them like the plague, but I find myself actually moving toward them. I feels this need to examine my fears, and maybe even to conquer them.
Basically, I’m terrified of sharks. This has been true since I saw Jaws as a child or teenager (I can’t remember exactly when it came out). Peter Benchley deeply regretted the fact that Jaws inspired fear in an entire generation, and I am one of that generation. I once went scuba diving in Mexico, and as the boat chugged out toward the dive spot, all the divers around me chatted excitedly about the possibility of seeing sharks. I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, “If I see a shark, I will die of a heart attack.”
The thing is, I also have a deep respect for sharks. They are beautiful and important like all of the earth’s creatures, and I am saddened by the persecution they’ve experienced at the hands of human beings. OK, great white sharks are pretty darn scary (I tend to retreat to the opposite side of the room from the television when a great white shows up on the screen), but there are more than 375 species of sharks in the ocean, and not one of those species, not even the great white, counts human beings as part of its diet. In fact a handy website called Sharkfacts.org says the chance of being killed by a shark is one in 300 million. The chance of being killed by airplane parts falling from the sky, on the other hand, is one in 10 million. Shark attacks occur when human beings tread (or swim) into the shark’s natural habitat and the shark mistakes the person for food. Saturday Night Live aside, when was the last time a shark swam into your living room at dinnertime?
Last night on Shark Week I watched Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson in a program about diving with reef sharks in the Bahamas. For most of the program he joked about being crazy to consider such a thing. The first time he dove, accompanied by experienced guides, he was awed, but still a bit petrified. However the second time, when he actually fed the sharks (I’m not sure how I feel about that sort of thing, but so be it) Ferguson came out of the water with an expression of joy on his face. His voice was filled with awe when he tried to describe what he’d just experienced. This man who makes his living making fun of things was all out of funny lines. He was completely blown away after interacting with these creatures — practically love-struck. He described them with words like fantastic, beautiful, wondrous.
The dive guide explained that his hope was to show people, who would then tell other people, that sharks are great animals (a special type of fish that has cartilage, I believe), are important to the ecosystem, and are worthy of our respect and protection. If he did that, the guide said, maybe he could accomplish something worthwhile and important.
So in honor of Shark Week, I’m trying to do the same.
If you’re interested in helping to protect sharks, this recent article from the Humane Society of the United States offers information and easy ways to take action. And if you haven’t heard about a horrendous practice called finning and are OK with seeing some tough photos, read about finning here.