Saturday, July 02, 2005

Chumming has its dangers

It's feeding time, and the sharks are waiting.

Below me, nine razor-toothed beasts of the deep swim in tight circles, dorsal fins breaking the surface of the murky water in menacing salutes.

Three weeks ago, a surfer was reportedly bitten by a great white, and on Saturday, a girl was killed in a Florida shark attack. This summer is also the 30th anniversary of "Jaws," and it's seeing a veritable shoal of other films, TV programs and books sinking their teeth into the fanged fish.
My job is to make sure the sharks don't sink their teeth into me.

The mission is to lower herring, via a slim pole, into the churning, 90,000-gallon shark tank at the New York Aquarium. The humble kababs have me nervous: How could they possibly sate an appetite — or nine of them — so famous in pop culture for voracity?

I lower my offering into the pool, bracing myself for a violent frenzy of fins, snapping jaws and the loss of my limbs. Instead I get…nothing. The animals — two nurse sharks, one white-tipped reef shark and six sand tigers — swim lazily past my snack, ignoring it.

"Try sticking the herring right in front of their mouths," suggests Hans Walter, an animal-department supervisor at the Coney Island attraction. "Here, they only eat about 2% to 4% of their body weight a week. They don't really have to work for their food. In the wild, they'd probably eat a little more."
Like feeding a reluctant baby, I maneuver my pole around the sharks' mouths in a here-comes-the-choo-choo-style seduction.

Finally Bertha, the 8½ -foot, 350-pound, 40-year-old matriarch sand tiger, indulges me. She calmly clamps her teeth around the fish and slides it off my pole. Her fellow sand tigers follow her lead, picking delicately at the fare. Only Shredder, a feisty 4½ -foot, 175-pound 4-year-old, gives me any fight, once clamping down on and swimming away with my pole.

It's almost, well, disappointing.

Unlike their reputation, I am learning, sharks are generally mild-mannered fish who feed only when hungry, attack only when provoked and don't really like the taste of humans.

Yet the image of the man-killer persists. And we can't get enough of it.

To celebrate the monstrously successful "Jaws" on its anniversary, Universal has released a DVD including an interview with director Steven Spielberg and a special on the "Jaws" phenomenon. This is, after all, the film that fueled the world's fear of the aquatic predators. And Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, has released a hardcover version of his tome with a new introduction that laments demonizing the great white shark. He has also delivered "Shark Life: True Stories About Sharks & the Sea," a children's book.

"Just like Peter, I feel some sense of regret in our rush to replicate the villain as the shark," says Carl Gottleib, "Jaws" screenwriter and author of "The Jaws Log: 30th Anniversary Edition," a behind-the-scenes account.

"We find them scary because they are the master of a domain where we are not welcome," he says. "On land, we are at the top of the food chain, but we are just bait under water. But sharks are amoral. They are not wicked fish. Big sharks are just big sharks. They swim and eat. That is their job."

For those who prefer a more interactive experience than a book can offer, Frank Mundus, the Montauk fishing legend rumored to be the inspiration for "Jaws" shark hunter Quint, is hosting the Frank Mundus $75,000 Shark Conservation Open — a three-week catch-and-release tournament — later this summer. If that's getting a little too close to the real thing, "Jaws Unleashed," a PlayStation 2 and Xbox video featuring a great white that battles hammerheads and oil-drilling humans, is due in August.

Next month, the Discovery Channel brings back "Shark Week," an 18-year-old event that has drawn more than 20 million viewers a year This year's theme is busting myths about sharks. "We have a love/hate relationship with sharks," says Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks U.S. "We love to hate them. We [Discovery] have been applauded for debunking a lot of the sensationalism surrounding them."

In the new nonfiction account "The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks," Susan Casey travels to the Farallon Islands, just off the coast of San Francisco, to document two biologists' studies of the animal. Intoxicated by the great whites, Casey admits that they have infiltrated her dreams, manifesting themselves as powerful — but not frightening — presences.

"Sharks are like our subconscious," says the former editor at Outside magazine, adding that the creatures are often misunderstood. "We don't know what's under there — it's all hidden. But they have an amazing vibe. They are elusive, big, quiet and really graceful creatures. If you ever get to see a shark, you are privileged."


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