Sunday, August 27, 2006

Shark safaris...quite an experience!

Sharks are offshore. Go see.

Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum-da-dum
Fear not. There’s no danger.

“We’re on a steel boat,” says Charles Avenengo, a marine educator. “We’re safe, unless of course the boat sinks.”

That hasn’t happened in Avenengo’s 14 years of oceanographic outings. Mostly they involve whale watches and seal watches. But now, for the second summer in a row, the Newport man is leading a series of shark safaris for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

It’s generally not what people associate with the society.

“Audubon isn’t just for birds or land environments,” says Kristen Swanberg, the society’s senior director of education programs. “We’re connecting people with nature.”

In Rhode Island, Avenengo says, the connection with sharks has been limited largely to stereotypes and misconceptions, not to the sharks themselves. Access is an issue.

“As it stands now, the only people who can see sharks are fishermen and divers,” Avenengo says. “These trips represent a chance for regular civilians to go see sharks.”

Prior to last year, Avenengo says, the opportunity to go shark watching existed only in San Francisco. There was nothing in New England, he says, except for a caged shark watch out of Galilee, which requires scuba certification.

All that’s required on this expedition, Avenengo says, is a fascination with sharks, which he says comes naturally. “Everyone is wide-eyed when they see sharks.”

You might see a hammerhead, a great white or a basking shark, but by far, Avenengo says, blue sharks are the most common around here. And he does mean around here: Rhode Island Sound, disconcerting as that may seem.

“It’s traditionally been a very rich hunting ground for sharks,” Avenengo says. “Indeed, there are lots and lots of sharks in our water.”

The shark safaris aboard the 95-foot Seven B’s leave from Galilee and go southeast of Block Island. Millions of years of history says blue sharks should be there now, according to Avenengo. Then they’ll migrate to Europe for fall, Africa for winter, South America for spring and back to New England for summer.

“They’re everywhere, and very successful,” Avenengo says.

Think Jaws. Now, Avenengo says, set the movie in Rhode Island, which would be accurate. Much of the film, he says, has connections to the state.

The late Robert Shaw portrayed a shark-fishing captain reportedly based on Frank Mundus, of Montauk, N.Y., who hunted sharks in Rhode Island Sound. And Richard Dreyfuss played a marine scientist based on Jack Casey, who’s now retired from Narragansett Bay Laboratory and its Apex Predator Lab.

While the location and the characters in Jaws may be based on reality, Avenengo says, the plot’s not. The 1975 movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the book by Peter Benchley, is sensational.

“Nobody in New England has been attacked by a shark in over 50 years,” Avenengo says. “The chances are 100 times greater you’d die of bee stings, dog bites or a crash on the highway.”
In fact, he says, if you must fear, fear for the sharks.

“They eat about 10 of us a year,” he says. “We eat about 100 million of them.”

Generally, he says, it’s not people in America who kill and eat sharks, but people in Asia, who fancy shark fin soup and sushi.

PEOPLE WHO take the Audubon shark safaris, which are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday and again on Sept. 6 and 13, learn a lot about sharks before they see them. During the 90-minute ride from Narragansett to just beyond Block Island, Avenengo delivers a shark lecture and shows a video about them.

“They are terrifying,” he says. “When we’re in their environment, we are pretty helpless.”

However, we’re also unappetizing. “We wear clothes and suntan lotion,” Avenengo says. “Surfers have neoprene wetsuits, which don’t taste good to sharks.”

Sharks, which are at the top of the oceanic food chain, along with orcas, can eat anything they want, Avenengo says. Nothing escapes them and their eight senses, which includes one for orientation, another for vibrations and another for electromagnetic energy.

“They can pick up a flounder buried under the sand,” he says.

They can also pick up the scent of a single drop of blood from a great distance. So bring out the chum, cut-up bloody fish used to attract sharks.

“The sharks will pick up the scent and go to the source, which in our case is us,” Avenengo says. “That’s their job. They are superb predators.”

Therein lies the appeal of sharks, seeing something so powerful so close. The ones that get very close to the boat will be tagged for an ongoing National Marine Fisheries Service study. That’s how scientists track their migration, just as they do with whales and seals.

Those sea creatures also attract lots of interest, but, Avenengo says, the experience of seeing them is very different.

“Nothing tops seeing a 40-ton humpback whale leap out of the water. It evokes tons of emotions. But they’re less reliable in our waters here. Seals, while not as exciting, are much more predictable. They’re on the rocks. They’re just there. They’re always there. Sharks are not as reliable as seals, but they provoke utter fascination.”

“Nobody,” says Avenengo, “will ever say of a shark, `how cute.’  ”

The Sharks Safaris are Monday and Sept. 6 and 13, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., aboard the Seven B’s, which departs from the docks in Galilee. Tickets are $78 for Audubon members and $88 for nonmembers. For reservations, call (401) 949-5454, ext. 3041, or e-mail Participants may bring lunch or buy lunch aboard the boat. Warm clothes, sunscreen, hats, binoculars and motion-sickness medication is advised.


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