Consistent good luck, by its very nature, cannot be relied upon; only celebrated in its passing.
They were coming faster now. They looked slow at first, meandering. Blindly slipping past me in the water almost as if their senses could be clouded by their lack of intellect. At first they swam aimlessly, like I could have deterred them with a hefty thought. Not so now. I have no real refuge. My vision narrow, my back and head unprotected, and my partner almost constantly facing in opposite directions. On they come. A flash of black near my shoulder, a fin above, seven gills, a swift current ushered past with spattered black on white like an old photograph in the wind. A bump.
I can barely focus enough to keep level, to hang on to my gear, to do my job. Then it happens…
I arrange my focus enough to see my partner, arms outstretched with a towel-covered fender like a white plastic scarecrow hangar. She’s reaching in the opposite direction desperately trying to push away the now alert and quickly closing sharks. As I turn back to the bat ray taking fresh salmon from my now slime-covered glove, one shark finally slips between us, and clamps down. Just for a second. The instant blur of adrenaline, shock, and worry that comes with an animal bite courses through me. I look up to see dozens of faces pressed against the tank window. In the time it takes to live out your life in a dream I think, “Oh shit, I hope no one saw that bite”. As it happens, my partner is in between the line of sight of the aquarium visitors and my hands. No one saw. The shark got lucky.
The bite wound was fantastic. Blood billows about profusely in seawater in a gentle irregular cloud. During the walk from the tank the droplets left a spectacular erratic trail all to the way down the hall to the bathrooms. A good hand washing and a regular Band-Aid later, I would eventually be graced with what looks like a paper-cut scar on my right ring finger. I would love to say that that bite changed my life, but really it was just a sad crowning-glory to an already complex list of reasons I probably would never be re-hired in husbandry at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
It turns out that being the second person on record to receive a bite from a seven-gill shark in captivity is remarkable in the way that sharing the successful resolution to a scorching case of the crabs can be. It has a cheap gossip excitement, but no one you tell will relate, no matter how poor their hygiene. They will laugh. I find that the laughter disarms them a little. In fact, this whole story has gotten me a bit of mileage over the years. It pulls people in to a lucky place in their hearts. Being that guy in the tank, feeding aquarium animals on SCUBA in the first place. It touches on an unfortunately all-to-familiar fear, and then leaves people with a rather goofy scenario and someone to laugh at. This is why I tell it.
Truth be told, that particular job was a low point in my career for several reasons. I took a paid husbandry position at the aquarium that summer to explore whether or not aquarist work was the path I would want to pursue. I knew I was lucky (as anyone would be) to have been accepted to work with the animals and exhibits at this elegant, world-renowned institution. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is something of an engineering marvel. The sheer beauty of the facility itself aside, the organization has accomplished tremendous feats in both maintaining captive sea life and connecting it to the hearts of a public that would never have experienced it otherwise. They were the first to display a live, growing kelp forest, and successfully display several juvenile Great White Sharks. Their 1.2 million-gallon Outer Bay tank, which holds a school of captive tuna, hammerhead sharks, anchovy, and pelagic stingrays, boasts the largest single viewing window of any aquarium in the world. For as many times as I have seen it, the illusion of looking into vast open water at that window is breathtaking. For a nerd like me, this job should have been like living out my 1980’s childhood motorcycle/laser beam/Jacques Cousteau/dinosaur fantasies all rolled into one. This did not happen. What came of the public-window-scratching/blistered-halide-lamp-burn/socially awkward/shark-bite internship was much more constructive. At the time it was just embarrassing.
In science, even negative results hold significant meaning. I was unable to clear the uncomfortable fog of self-deprecating feelings at making so many mistakes during such a short chance to give the aquarium staff a good impression of my abilities. I am by nature attracted to calculated risk. This characteristic did not compliment my drive to prove myself to the aquarium staff. Coming from a non-profit background where no one really has only one job function, I simply tried too hard and listened too little. Though I didn’t see it at the time, the calamity of my decision-making eventually helped decide whether or not aquarium husbandry was for me. Retelling the shark story now, I see that the thought process in those few moments was the stuff that would later drive me to deep satisfaction in working to save my little corner of the world in much more extroverted ways.
In the moments following my bite, I surfaced to look at my hand. The adrenaline and chilly water told my senses that I was uninjured. The finger of my thick neoprene gloves was split to my cold-yellowed skin, but I could see no actual cut. With a swiftness of thought that calculated the facts I could avoid telling my mother when I almost got caught at my most rotten, I thought, “Sweet. No blood, no incident report”. It wasn’t that I was afraid of paperwork. It wasn’t that the situation should have been avoided by better planning on the part of my supervisors. It was that I myself shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I had injured my knee, and according to my worker’s compensation doctor I wasn’t supposed to be carrying more than 15 pounds of anything. My weight belt alone weighed 35. When I returned to the bottom of the tank to finish feeding the bat rays, I was soon surrounded by sharks.
Seven-gill sharks are slow, docile, and a little ungainly as sharks go. We were trying to medicate the bat rays in the tank by slipping their pills to them in chunks of their preferred food, salmon. Late in the summer, the ambient water pumped in from Monterey Bay was a few degrees warmer than usual (though not comfortable without a wetsuit by any means). Due to the warmer temperature, the sharks had a quicker metabolism, faster thought, and swift response to the oily smell of salmon in the water. I could feel them pass me, and constantly had to turn my torso to accommodate for the limited field of vision that a diving mask creates. I was in a part of the tank where the sharks could get behind and over me, as opposed to being against the window where you can keep them in front of your body. I turned all the way around to find a shark inches from my face and quickly lay down completely, turning my head to the side to let it pass over. When I sat up and looked again, I finally saw the billowing green of a tiny bit of my blood at depth, gently puffing from the hole in my glove.
Sitting up, I could see what appeared to be a hundred people at the window cramming their faces over and around each other to watch, none the wiser to what was happening. Watching the people there, and realizing what the seven-gills were attracted to, I knew that it had been incredibly lucky the public had not seen the bite. I knew that even if I stayed in the tank and took another more severe bite, it would cause relatively little harm to my own body. It was the next thought more than anything that gave me the perspective to decide on what I hope is a life more useful to the world.
People often browse their way past aquarium tanks filled with creatures more exotic, epic, and myth-inspiring than anything their entire lineage of ancestors could have conjured, without more interest than passing the window of an appliance store. As soon as you add a human being to the scenario, they’re plastered, squirming to the window as if the Loch Ness monster were swimming past with the president and Bigfoot holding hands. Children stare and startle when you wave at them from the other side of the glass, sheepishly relishing the acknowledgment of the anonymous SCUBA diver. People are so fascinated with the idea that that could be them. They could be just there, impossibly breathing underwater, hovering weightless above the skates and halibut and sturgeon. It is these moments when they are acutely aware of all of the animals in the tank. It is these moments when they are forced to reevaluate their impressions of the watery nightmares that popular media has nursed them on their entire lives. It is these moments when it is vital for them to see a real live person out of their element, and in a nurturing role for a host of predators that they, until then, have assumed would indiscriminately eat any but the toughest of Animal Planet documentary stars. In the moment when I realized that the sluggish, benign seven-gill sharks were attracted to the tinge of my blood in the water I thought “This could turn out to be so terrible for the sharks if I don’t get out now”. At worst I could have expected to take a bite that would leave me with a scar more akin to road-rash than a paper cut, but the wounds left on the public’s perception would run deep for years, maybe even forever.
Shark populations worldwide are threatened. As important predators, they help drive the health of prey populations toward ever more fit generations of offspring by removing the sick and the weakest members. Where sharks are removed from portions of the ocean, ecosystems come unraveled in often-unforeseen ways that are detrimental both biologically and economically. Sharks often grow slow, mature late in life, and give birth to few offspring, a combination which makes them highly susceptible to fishing pressures. Their populations are slow to recover from large-scale removal from the oceans. Sharks simply cannot compete with our ability to catch them. They are removed from the ocean as bycatch in long-line fisheries, and more so by finning. Finning is the practice of cutting off the fins for shark fin soup, and tossing the still living animal back into the ocean. These practices are exacerbated by the reputation of sharks in the media and our innate fears of being consumed by a predator that isn’t even warm-blooded.
Of the roughly 400 species of sharks in the world, one can generally count on a single hand the number of different types that are likely to hurt a person. For the same cheap thrills that people suckle from murder dramas, horror movies, or prime-time news, we love to fear some of the most valuable organisms in the world. Without sharks, the populations and interactions of many of the ocean’s more popular (but less evocative) residents would be diminished. My immediate concerns in the moments following my little shark paper-cut were not for trying to save face in order to preserve my job. They were not even for the reputation of the aquarium that, in my opinion, has given much to the world. My concerns were for the reputations of those sharks. I distinctly thought of the potential fallout in the public media if my bite managed to be caught on any one of dozens of cameras. The aquarium’s public relations department would likely do a great job explaining it away, but now after several years of experience attempting to accurately relate stories to the media, I doubt that any positive spin would help. The focus wouldn’t be that the aquarists should have planned the dive differently. It wouldn’t have been that the bat rays should have been fed something less appealing to the sharks, that an extra person should have been helping to fend the sharks (gently nudging them aside), or even that I was acting outside the rules by being there in the first place. People, imbibing the sensational fear, would inevitably blame the sharks. So it goes with any animal attack resulting in severe human injury. It isn’t that we’re developing our societies ever further into their habitat, causing predators to compete in futility for natural resources, or mucking about completely out of our element (and in theirs) acting like food. Ultimately, at least in the media, the animal takes the blame.
Hindsight being 20/20, it is so obvious that despite myself, I would earn a career where I can make a difference, however small, by teaching everyday folks how to talk to the public about marine science and conservation. By no means was this one incident what put me on the road to teaching. Just like in diagnosing mental illness, it sometimes helps to rule out the other options before settling on the right kind of crazy. So here I am, the kind of crazy that likes to do my part to connect people with the ill-understood environment that keeps our planet running. The kind of crazy that still hopes it will help. The kind of crazy that finds consistent good luck in my mistakes.
Lucky for me. Lucky, I hope, for sharks.
© Chris Reeves: Seemed Like Good Science at the Time, 2012.