Here Be Monsters? – Part 5: Only the Best

This is the final part of a 5-part continuous story about our most exciting everyday monsters.

Previous chapters can be found here:

Part 1: Playing Food

Part 2: People Are Just Misunderstood

Part 3: Happy Homemakers

Part 4: Let the Healing Begin!

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze back into you.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Only the Best

Puppy Love:

It’s bright.  The relaxing glint of sunlight on the water plays across my eyes, briefly highlighting the crackers I’m spilling all over the car-seat in the back of mom’s sparkle-brown Mercury Montego.  An aging speaker box hangs inside the window.  I don’t understand what the adults are saying, but I like the water and the boats.  The tone tells me something is scaring mom and dad, but I just stare like a deer in headlights.  It’s my very first drive-in movie.  The speaker box squelches out the low-fidelity sound that sharks make.

Daaa dum. …da dum.  Dum dum, dum dum, dum dum…

So far I just stare at adults running around, but then, She arrives in the water.  I know she’s an animal, and I like animals.  There’s something about her that has me riveted in enchanted excitement as my very first crush swims into my life.  My first movie; my first crush; my first shark.  I’d be willing to bet that she’s a lot of people’s first.  She is Jaws.  She’s still the shark of my dreams.


Seeing this from a carseat could really only end up one way. Right; nerd.

What about yours?

Try this now; imagine a shark.  Imagine being in the water with it.  Is the water clear?  Is it green?  Your shark swims past you.  Is the water warm?  Cold?  If it’s cold, imagine wearing a wetsuit.  If you’re imagining a wetsuit, go ahead and imagine peeing in your wetsuit.  It’s so waaarm and cozy…

Oh, OK, back to your shark.  Imagine now that it is near you in the water.  Imagine its color, its lines, and its curves.  Imagine the look in its eyes.  Imagine its speed, its size, and its intent.  Hold that image in your mind for a little bit.

Go on; I’ll still be here when you lose focus.

That didn’t take long.

All right, now be honest; you didn’t think of a mako, a hammerhead, or any one of only about 5 or 6 species that may be involved in human injuries.  You didn’t think of the adorable shoulder spots of an epaulet shark.  You didn’t imagine the powerful striped muscles of a tiger, or the broad wing-like fins of an oceanic white tip.  What the hell is a lemon shark?  Is it yellow?  Did you think of a porbeagle?  Isn’t that Snoopy?  No, you would be hard-pressed to give a description of any of those species that doesn’t sound like one shark in particular.  Admit it, you only imagine the best.  You’re thinking of triangle-teeth, the largest carnivorous fish, the very tippy top predator at the fishy apex.  You’ve conjured that shark that you also fell in love with in the back seat at the drive-in, in a dark theater, or in a re-run movie marathon.  You’re imagining Jaws.  You’re imagining a great white shark; our first crush.


Sharks in our most exciting media are predictably white sharks.  We love the on-screen thrill of schools of great white sharks coming to get us.  Do they even swim in schools?  You don’t know.  I bet that right now you are hoping they do, and you’re having that roller coaster feeling in your tummy as you think about it.  I’m sorry to rob you of your excuse for extraneous adult diapers, but white sharks don’t school in the way that most schooling fish do.  There simply isn’t food enough in most ecosystems to support an enormous group of apex predators.  (As a species, we are only an exception for now because we keep finding ways to buck the system.)  No.  We only want the diamond encrusted Cadillac of sharks.  We love their gaudiness.  We love their power.  We love them to be as big around as a sport-utility vehicle, as long as a shipping container, intelligent, warm blooded (slightly), mysterious, and with more charisma than John Stewart running for president.

We want it all.

Mom takes my brother Damien and I to the edge of the dolphin feeding pool at Sea World San Diego.  Something’s very different today.  We don’t buy the little paper tray of fish to feed the dolphins, and there are way too many people crowded around, even for an exhibit where you can pet a dolphin.  There’s a man with a long pole walking the perimeter of the shallow ledge, looking like a melancholy warden who’s overseeing his own relatives in prison.  Sea World has replaced the dolphins with a Great White shark.  I’m scared for the man walking in the same water with the shark, as if the pool is electrified and he’s going to be shocked.  I can’t remember why I feel this way.  Damien and I strain to see over the ledge on our tiptoes as exquisite gray lines slip past.  We peer into inky black eyes, older than civilization, all full of innocence and grace.  I can’t reconcile this with the sensational nightmare the adults prattle about.  She is beautiful.


Sea World dolphin petting pool, circa 1980’s

Damien and I have just come from the summer camp’s behind-the-scenes class about sharks.  We ask the man on the edge of the pool a dozen questions about his charge.  He tells mom that he’s impressed by our questions, and that he doesn’t think he knows as much as these 7 year-olds.   On each pass by our side of the pool, the man follows for a distance, keeping the pole between the inside of the pool and the shark.  He doesn’t look like he’s trying to fight her off.  I ask him what he’s doing, and he tells us that she keeps bumping her snout against the side of the tank, and he’s trying to prevent injury.  Suddenly, her comely bulk seems fragile.  The man with the pole looks the way that Mom does when Damien and I are sick with the flu.  My heart aches for her a little, and I want more than anything to reach in and touch the fine tiles of her gunmetal skin.

We leave.  I feel like something’s missing.

She’s Out There Somewhere:

I’m tired of working at humane societies and caring for violent developmentally disabled people.  I’m passionate about both, but I’m still not particularly fulfilled.  A brief bout of beekeeping and volunteering in an insect zoo didn’t really fill the gap for me either.  Maybe it’s because I’m 22 and riding the train of hormones sober, which translates into perpetual distraction with dating and motorcycles.  Maybe it’s because I have no discipline.  Maybe I have yet to find my fortune as a hipster beekeeper with a penchant for taking in stray possums and raising hissing cockroaches at home.  I decide that I want to know how the world is put together so that I can explain why the grass is green and the sky is blue.  With vague memories of SCUBA shows and a familiar feeling that I’ve misplaced something, I bumble into college for the first time to earn a biology degree.  Somehow, deep down, I know this will lead me to Her.

In the interim years a lot of other sharks come and go.  They’re mostly lithe little things with a variety of ecological niches.  They are perfect.  They are lovely.  I enjoy them each in turn, but always there is the vacancy in my center left by my first love.  Tidbits come across the news, and I overhear her name in conversation.  My ears prick in response.  I wait in barely concealed desperation for the chance to see her.  Our time will come.


I tuck in my chin and roll back over the side of the Boston whaler into the scraggly kelp canopy.  It’s covered with chalky bryozoans that look like blotches of white mold.  The scratchy sound of them scraping across my head is amplified in my hood.  It’s a work dive, so we don’t wait.  I barely had any air in my buoyancy compensator to begin with, and the heavy hammer and chisel that I’m using to remove clams from the slate reef for a display at the aquarium speed my descent.  The first 30 feet are soupy with yellow-green plankton, which clears as if falling through a soft office ceiling into amber light.  My coworkers from the aquarium split off to stake out their collecting areas.  I’m hard-wired from scientific dive training never to dive alone, and I’m always surprised at first when other people find it normal.  My buddies disappear into cold yellow gloom in different directions.  At least the chisel will make a ton of noise against my tank if I need to alert them about anything, not that it will be easy to find each other.  Successful diving is all in the planning and self-competence.  Other people are unpredictable in the ocean.  Even with company, you’re always diving alone.

The kelp on the outside of the slate reef in Seaside is torn up from wave action.  A few kelp rockfish huddle around a bare stipe at odd angles, pretending to be the blades of that tattered algae strand.  The green ceiling of plankton is solid overhead, but with no kelp canopy to speak of, the ambient light reminds me of the dull San Diego street lamps at night.  I find the edge of the reef and begin my search for piddocks and cucumbers to remove and take back for display.  I set my chisel in a couple of places to collect.  Before I can hammer, I find that the critters who bore into the reef for a home are no strangers to escaping the disturbances of predators, or apparently, clumsy tool-wielding primates with an air supply.  I try anyway in the hopes that a large forebrain and opposable thumbs will facilitate my success over the animals who make a living in that rock.  The noise is astounding.  The sound of mini sledgehammer and chisel on rock startles me.  I try again a couple of times, and then I feel it.  My neck pricks up, and calm climbs into my belly.  I already don’t like working out in the open with no kelp canopy for cover.  The unmistakable quiet of a predator near, settles over the whole scene.  I look over the reef, the tattered kelp stipes, and the brittle stars.  We are alert.  Calm.  I back myself up against a VW-sized boulder and make myself small.  I crouch for a few minutes scanning the distance for sign of my dive partners.  There’s no noise; no movement.  I know I’m relatively safe where I’m sitting.  After a short while I realize that I’m fantasizing about the slow overhead passage of a massive white underbelly over my rock from behind, like the ominous Star Destroyer in the opening scene of Star Wars.  I love Star Wars.

Like this, but sharkier.

Like this, but, sharkier.

With those wandering thoughts comes the relieving of any sense of danger.  I chide myself for acting paranoid.  What were the odds that there was really a shark in the water.  I’ll always choose caution, but really…

Back on the boat, I’ve got a few odd brittle stars, one piddock, and a sea cucumber to show for my troubles.  A paltry earning given the effort.  I’m a little embarrassed about the scarcity of my collection, and decide not to tell my coworkers about the feeling I had underwater.  I catch myself scanning the surface the whole ride back to the aquarium, desperately hoping for a validating glimpse of a big shark near.  By the time we reach the little ramp off the back deck, it is apparent that I won’t see Her.  I am disappointed again and left wondering if She was ever there.  I feel a little like one of those desperate celebrity stalkers that tell themselves they’re just the “world’s biggest fan.”

Something is missing.

Later that day, half of a sea otter with wide bite lacerations washes up on the beach in front of the slate reef in Seaside.

Years of SCUBA diving in places where I know that white sharks swim near, has me trusting my gut feeling that I should be careful.  Local sightings confirm their presence more often than not.  A 7-year-old girl aboard the sailboat I’m working on points past me and says, “hey look, a shark!” during a particularly sharky year.  I hear this all the time.  I almost don’t even look, as I begin saying, “It’ probably just a fin from a seal or sea lio… Oh crap!  There’s a shark!”  And there She is.   Her tall triangular dorsal fin idles along at the surface looking like nothing that a 7-year-old girl could possibly mistake.  She’s about 10 feet long, and dips under the lanky bow of our 70-foot yacht as if She could care less.  A stranger’s child and I look down on her gunmetal lines and broad keel in utter fascination.  We follow her movement together in indistinguishable infatuation, she a biologist and I a 7 year-old, scrambling across the deck hoping to hold the sight of our shark for just a few seconds longer.  Gray blends into green as windy whitecaps smooth over the shark’s passage.

For the rest of the sail, and many after, I am listless.   I stare at the horizon in vain for another glimpse.  Something is missing.  I know She’s there.

I Found My Heart Off San Francisco:

A successful book about the white sharks at the Farallon Islands, which lie just west of San Francisco, has resulted in a change of policy that won’t allow the shark researchers to stay in the blocky Victorian houses on Southeast Farallon anymore.  Homer asks me to crew for him on the sailing research vessel Derek M. Baylis to convey the researchers to the island and back from San Francisco everyday for October’s month-long shark tagging season.  This is it.  She’s out there, and I am going to see her up close.

We are launching the Stacey, a specially built whaler, from the temporary tracks on the Baylis’ rear deck.  At 16 feet, Stacey is the same size or smaller than many of the sharks that frequent this rugged snaggle of rock perched on the continental shelf.  The Farallon Islands are home to California’s small, genetically distinct population of great white sharks.  At around 200 animals, these sharks are rare enough that some people have argued that they should be placed on the endangered species list, since it appears that they don’t interbreed with other groups of white sharks.  We have to find them during the few times that they are predictably near the surface.  This involves first looking for them from the vantage of our deck.  In order to launch Stacey and see the sharks, we can really only work on calm days with flat sea surface.  Essentially, we can only go to work when the sea is calm and it’s nice out.


SRV Derek M. Baylis

Everyone is asleep in the pre-dawn departure under the Golden Gate.  The distinct foghorn of the south tower rattles the wheel and my joints with it.  The fog prevents me from seeing an enormous bridge piling which I can hear the ripping tide boiling past.  The tiny glow of the GPS that Homer has rigged to the steering column tells me that we’re powering against a strong tide in this part of the channel.  Someone saw fit to build a luxury sailing yacht for scientific research, but they put most of the navigation equipment inside the boat, far from the above-deck steering wheels.  The fog is oppressive.  Driving blind is one of the very few times that Homer gets nervous.  He’s inside the cabin shouting clear crisp clips about the size and distance of radar hits that I can’t see while I steer through the fog.  The going is slow and nerve wracking.  At some point the foghorn of a cargo ship blasts the sanity from my skull as its beam shadows the fog right next to us.  We’re close enough that I know it can’t possibly see us on its own radar.  Homer and I are sternly quiet as I turn us hard to port in order to put some distance between us.  We churn along blind and soaking in the endless gray.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

30 miles later, the fog spits us out in front of jagged islands.  I look back at an immense white cotton wall lording over the central coast, as I wipe the fog-water from my goggles and gloves.  If I ever make a boat, I’m putting a steering option on the inside.  Out here the sea is pond-smooth, as if the fog has rolled it flat.  It’ll be easy to spot sharks today.  The smell of toasting bagels, and prepared food heated on a Foreman Grill marks our imminent arrival.  Scientists and crew wake up.  We have coffee.  We eat.  We launch Stacey, and look for signs of sharks.  Scott, Sal, and Suzie take Stacey around to Mirounga Bay, which is named after the genus of northern elephant seal; white shark’s preferred food.  The sharks return to these islands each year to feed on the blubber-rich seals and sea lions.  The female sharks return every other year, and in all cases, the sharks are thin upon arrival.  Blubber is rich in fat, which contains a lot of bang for your buck as an energy source in nature.  The sharks will stock up on energy stores, growing fat from their food before leaving for the year.  White sharks hunt over rocky reef where they are well camouflaged, especially on overcast days.  When the silhouette of a seal or sea lion swims overhead, the sharks charge them from underneath and try to kill them with one heaving bite.  Pinnipeds are agile, smart, and they have formidable teeth themselves.  The white sharks are fairly conservative in their technique since they would burn up a lot of energy trying to chase down a seal that they can’t outmaneuver.  The sharks ambush their prey, hoping to kill them outright from below.  They will then return to eat, once the seal is dead.  Once in a while, an attempt to strike at prey is unsuccessful.  The sharks charge at great speed, but they miss.


Sea lions keep safe in numbers as they come and go from the island.

From the wheel of the Baylis, I’m watching Stacey off the starboard beam.  There have been humpbacks all along the drive out here today.  Off of Stacey’s bow, I see a breach.  The animal’s nose is pointed and the fins are too short for a humpback.  I think to myself, “That’s the strangest looking whal…ohhhhh!”  It is the belly of a shark looking like a military-grade version of the Pacific Life Insurance commercial.

We’re following Stacey at a distance this year, instead of anchoring and waiting for her to work around the island.  It had dawned on us that our radios needed a line of sight in order to work.  Sometimes science and sailing need to be tempered with common sense.  The decision went something like, “Hey Homer?  What if Stacey capsized, lost her engine, or had a shark breach across the deck?  Would we even know?”  And just like that, we’re following the little whaler as a more active support.  We stop a couple of times to hold position over the acoustic recorders that are moored on both sides of the island.  It’s a testament to Homer’s boating skills that he can hold the pointed bow of a sailing yacht still, over one spot for extended periods of time, while I dangle a receiver just above the buoy anchored to the seafloor to upload a year’s worth of data.  Sal and Scott use acoustic tags on the sharks.  The tags emit a sound pulse with an identifying number every time the shark passes one of the two recorder moorings, which records the date, time, and shark identification.  These are similar devices as the ones used to track salmon moving in and out of San Francisco bay.  Salmon with odd tag numbers turned out to be white sharks traveling inside the bay, who registered on the National Marine Fisheries Service recorders.

We are also using an old pop-up archival tag (PAT) on a rope for a makeshift device to periodically measure conductivity, temperature, and depth.  When the PAT tags are on the shark, they record lots of information.  Since the sharks only need to be near the surface when they feed, the tag must be designed to detach and return to the surface in a few months when it is finished with its work.  At a preprogrammed time, the PAT tag’s battery will heat the wire that holds it in place on the shark, until the wire breaks and releases the tag.  The tag will then float to the surface and begin transmitting its data to 2 polar-orbiting Argos satellites. The satellites are only overhead recording portions of the tag data for a short time each day.  The only way to get the complete data set is to go out and recover the tag.   The researchers get a message saying that their tag is on the surface, and where in the ocean it is.  The tag begins to emit a radio signal so that it can be found.  At this point, the batteries are low, so the radio signal only lasts for a few days.  This means that in order to recover the complete set of valuable data, someone has to go to sea on a boat, to the location that the tag popped up, wearing headphones, and use an old radio antenna to find a black device the size of a felt marker, by sound.  …in the Pacific.


Tagged shark showing acoustic tag in the front and PAT tag in the rear.

Getting the tags on the sharks is the part everyone looks forward to.

After a long morning of bobbing around after Stacey and researching the smorgasbord of gelatinous creatures that have been blowing past our hull in the current, we break for sandwiches hot off the Foreman Grill and swap out crew.  Everyone wants a turn on the tagging boat.  This time, I’m finally up.  I clamber from the Baylis’ aft deck, making the leap into Stacey’s bow.  Scott takes the wheel while Sal sits on the large cooler that doubles as a bench seat behind the center console.  I take a spot on the small box platform in front of the wheel.  Getting close enough to the sharks to tag them is largely a matter of patience and a small amount of trickery.  With all of the high tech gear aboard this small boat, it’s a little funny how the whole operation is overcome by the simple practicalities of working at sea.  We can’t just get in the water and look for what we need, so we have to trick the sharks into coming to us.  Tagging these sharks is best done with three people.  Stacey is too small for more folks to work together without stumbling into one another. Sal has permits to collect old blubber from dead whales or elephant seals that have washed ashore, which is used to scent the water.  A chunk of whale bobs like a fat-cube on a short piece of line just off the rear of the boat.  Blubber has an odd sickly-sweet smell that is frankly, impossible to remove from clothing or equipment.  Once your gear gets blubbered, that gear is committed to blubberish work from that moment on; outside.  When a dead whale washes ashore, the people who come to see it often find this out the hard way when they commit their shoes to reeking horror by walking in the oily sand where the carcass has been rotting.  The sun over Stacey bakes the scent of sweet decay into our senses while we reapply coconut sunscreen.  The sunscreen doesn’t gain the summer-fun smell in my mind that it usually does.  We just roll about on the smooth water next to our blubber, generally talking about nothing in particular.  We wait.  It’s hot.  Sal re-scents the water with blubber.  While I know of course, that a shark is a fish, the regular everyday fishing pole is a funny reminder.  We need to get the sharks to the boat somehow, and it turns out to be like getting any other fish from the ocean.  We use a lure.  White sharks will lunge for silhouettes at the surface, so we’re using a lure constructed from old industrial carpeting that is cut in the shape of a seal and sewn around foam floats. The oil from the blubber attracts the shark to the general vicinity, and then the shark tries to bite the lure.  Just like carp or mahi-mahi, Scott reels in the lure to bring the shark next to the boat where the work begins.  See?  Practical.


The lure after a day's work.

The lure after a day’s work.

I stand on the box platform with a high-speed camera to get photos of any shark dorsal fins that break the surface.  The fin in the middle of their back always has nicks and tatters that can be used to identify the individual, like a fingerprint.  If the shark doesn’t come to investigate the lure or the boat, the fin photos may be the only identification we get.  I’m held in by a short piece of rope, holding a camera with both hands, and standing a couple of feet above the deck on a tippy boat that is smaller than the sharks we’re tagging.  Rolling from side to side tips me over a precarious view of open water.  I couldn’t be happier.

Scott has a video camera on a pole that he uses to film the sharks underwater when they are near the boat.  Sal is using the pole-mounted acoustic tags today.  He has a portable receiver on board that makes a hollow ping when a tagged shark swims by.  Each ping warrants a quick look at the device to read the number and find out which shark it is.  The two of them know these sharks as individuals.  Sal records the number, and then we wait.  The sun bakes us.  We shed clothing layers despite working atop icy water.  It is still.  In the distance, a young gray whale spyhops to take a gander at us.  The light off the water is incredibly bright.  We wait.  Ping.  Record.  Wait.  Once in a while we see activity at the surface that piques our interest.

About 100 yards away, there is a split second flash of fin that marks a shark striking prey.  It is so fast that we question if it was real, but when the gulls descend over that spot, we know it is a success for the shark.  We motor over to the spot to find nothing but a neon red stain in the sea.  Pinnipeds have a very high amount of blood cells in their bodies, which are super loaded with hemoglobin.  The effect in water is a vibrant crimson Day-Glo, where there was once a sea lion.  Sea lion bodies tend to sink since they do not have very thick blubber, as opposed to an elephant seal carcass which floats and makes it easier to find the shark that caught it when it comes back to feed.  We find no further evidence that anything had transpired in this spot.  I think back over all the times that I worked underwater in places where I knew there were sharks near, and the lame ideas I had of putting up a fight to discourage a shark from biting.  This shark had done its job in a fraction of a second.  I would never have even had time for such an interaction to register as a thought in my head before it would have been over.  I am overcome with awe by the magnificent speed and skill that evolution has sculpted in these bulky fishes.  I can’t wait to see them up close.

The Day-glo stain on the sea that marks a shark's success over a sea lion.

The Day-glo stain on the sea that marks a shark’s success over a sea lion.

We return to waiting.  The sunny blue air is so crystal clear that we can make out the iconic lines of the Golden Gate from all the way out here.  Scott and Sal talk briefly about baseball.  They fill me in on stories about the sharks, and about events recounted from the book written about the Farallones.  A long afternoon of trying out various conversation topics in the heat passes more quickly when we default to talking about science.  Scott and I are enthusiastic about the menagerie of clear salps and comb jellies idling around Stacey in the glassy sea.  The two of them patiently answer the litany of questions about the sharks and their research that they probably get from every last crew member or colleague that has ever accompanied them in their work.  They know these animals well enough to point out new scars, and reminisce about which sharks are more timid and which are more bold.  I can hear the love for these animals in Sal’s soft voice, even over the necessary technical speak of science.  Scott is a boater, plain and simple, whose practical language clearly conveys his affection for the sea and everything in it, despite his career in science.  Sal and I are debriefing about this morning’s data upload from the Vemco receiver moored on the east side of the island.  The fake seal lure is motionless on the bright polished ocean, when a sudden split in the calm shows a heaving gray head and mouth envelop it.  It seems slow for one of these animals; an exploratory taste.  Scott reels in the lure, while Sal readies the tag and I snap away with the camera.  The lure arrives at Stacey with no further excitement.  Minutes stretch out painfully slow while we scan the horizon for any sign of the shark.  I glance over the side of the boat at the dark brown-grey of the slate reef far below.  Almost imperceptibly, a portion of the reef rolls slowly to the side revealing the sharp white line of a shark’s countershaded belly on its way past our whaler.  A huge innocent, inky black eye, older than civilization looks back into mine.  This is it.  I’m finally here with my first crush, in her own environment.

Inspecting the lure.

This shark follows the lure to Stacey.

Stacey was specially built to be carried and launched from the Baylis for shark tagging at the Farallones. Someone is taking fin photos from the fore platform.

Scott takes video with the pole camera, I shoot stills of the fins, and Sal stretches over the edge to poke a tag in this 18-foot shark.  The whole thing is over in seconds; silent and with little more than small splashes of her tail.  She flinches almost imperceptibly, and her slate body fades back into the flat colors of the reef below.  I stare at the spot where she had been, searching for the feeling of fulfillment that I always assumed would flood me in this moment, but where I expect it, a poignant listlessness stares back.

I have finally laid my own eyes upon that first love from the backseat at the drive-in.  Here, on what in geologic terms, amounts to a fancy canoe, some clever monkeys have tricked a perfect apex predator out of time immemorial, into doing their bidding with little more than sticks and a regular fishing pole.  In a different mindset we could have just as easily killed and ate her.  As the pings from the device Sal placed in her flank fade from the speakers, I am pierced by our separateness.  Putting acoustic and satellite tags on them will tell us a great deal about their habits, and the ocean conditions of the places they travel.  Here we are in a position to preserve these supposed monsters, these stewards of ecosystems out of sight, and naively out of mind.  The information obtained from these animals helps us in our responsibility to care for them.  Caring for these sharks makes our future ocean healthier, improves and preserves our fisheries, and helps restore a sea that we no longer remember, but which we benefit from nonetheless.  We are the very top apex predator here.  We can maintain the health of whole ecosystems if we choose.  If we want, we can preserve fishing trips with our own kids and grandkids.  We can pass on an ocean that still has formidable, elegant, predators to tantalize our imagination and sense of beauty.

This vivid flurry of revelations is cut short by the practicalities of working at sea.  Sal brings in the lure and Stacey lurches into motion, heading home to the edges of dry land.  The shark seems fragile now.  I feel like that keeper at Sea World with concern in his eyes, while he tried to prevent that white shark from injuring herself on the side of the pool.

Something is still missing.

Get What You Need:

What is missing is not a lack of experience.  I’ve had that now.  What is missing is a deep and proper connection to our world and our ocean.  It is a dissonance that clouds our understanding of the interconnectedness between the oceans and all living things, including everyone we know, and who will ever live.  Studying white sharks in the wild reminds me that I already carry the feeling I had hoped this work would spark in my belly.  We all do.  It is subtle, and I simply hadn’t recognized it because I expected something like the high of a new crush, instead of something like a love that completes us.  This connection bleeds through into our lives in our willingness to pay a premium for an ocean view, the satisfied well-being we feel from a walk at the beach, or the true and abiding love for a sea with its monsters still in it; the very same monsters which drive us to explore, and to learn.


Imagine then, an ocean without its monsters; loveless and boring.

When we learn to appreciate the monsters in our mind’s ocean, we develop a different kind love for them.  The more we learn about them, the more we learn about ourselves.  Our wonder and subsequent understanding reflects who we are…

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze back into you.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

What if the abyss is filled with something we hold dear; something we need?  What if it is filled with monsters big and small who maintain life as we know it, or more importantly, who maintain life as we have forgotten it?  What benefits might we recoup from a healthier ocean?  How much more food could we provide for our children?  How many more sunsets will we anonymously applaud together from a sea cliff, medicines we may conjure for our families, or creatures who inspire legends that we may actually lay our own wizened eyes upon, if the intricate life in the oceans played its full symphony in concert, without interruption?

What if, when the abyss gazes back into us, it finds something exciting, something to be cherished, something that has the power to change the world; or save it?


5 thoughts on “Here Be Monsters? – Part 5: Only the Best

    • Seeing sharks is always fantastic. I wrote about these sharks because they gave me a particular perspective, but there’s never been a time when I thought, “oohhh, bummer, this is just a (insert shark name here) shark…” Besides, more sharks means healthier ocean. I’m glad you go to see one too!

  1. Beautiful, Chris! I sped through it once, sort of gulping it ’cause it was so delicious, then I read it again to taste all the spices. I thought I could identify iodine, sea salt, coffee, butter flavoring, and blubber. So you’re not just a clever guy with a shark fetish, but a clever guy with a shark fetish who can write words that give others a glimpse into that wonder. Thanks for a great read!

    • Thank you Anne! I’m glad that I gave a little insight into the day-to-day science. I think the clinical language of science can sometimes overshadow the beauty of the work. I hope the story helps covey how important sharks (and other large predators) are for our own health.

  2. Oh my gawd, this is just so gorgeous. A veritable treasure trove of beautiful language, exquisite analogy and nail-biting experience. “Fine tiles of her gunmetal skin” – stunning.
    “Slow overhead passage of a massive white underbelly over my rock from behind, like the ominous Star Destroyer” – fucking hilarious!

    You seriously need to combine all five of these blogs and publish a book. I don’t think there has ever been a more beautiful ode to the shark and (indirectly) to yourself as such a gentle and intellectual human being. Well done, Soooooopaaaaaah!

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