The Tao of Sharks

Why We Find Them So Fascinating
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The backside of summer in Montana. The temperature reaches 90, 97, 102. The sagebrush, prickly pear, and conifers remain green, but everything else is dormant, brittle, or dead. The rivers flow meekly. Evening brings desert winds, smoke and dust, and dry lightning storms. Wildfires ignite and roll across hundreds or thousands of acres of parched landscape, coloring the sky grayish-brown, the setting sun blood-red.

From the vantage point of this world—a place forever wanting of water, landlocked and nearly one mile above sea level, where fire is the signature element—I contemplate the shark and his world, cool or cold, aquamarine and sparkling. What accounts for our endless fascination with these ancient creatures? What is the story of people and sharks? We must have all of the facts, and the histories; our uniquely human curiosity and equally human fears insist upon it.

They appeared in the warm, salty seas of the Devonian Period, 350 million years ago. Their skulls and skeletons, formed of a toughened cartilage rather than bone, were of a superior design; but the absence of calcium, the stuff of bones, meant that their bodies and fearsome heads would never enter the fossil record. We have only their teeth. Terrible teeth. The most terrible teeth imaginable.

Scientists say we did not appear in a flash of light. If this is so, our sovereign status in a world of eat-or-be-eaten did not come easily. It was terrifying, hard-earned, with many casualties along the evolutionary way. It is not an experience we care to repeat. And we know, as surely as the sun rises and sets, that the natural world is not static, that everything remains in flux; we know—a deep, eternal sort of knowing—that today's success may not last, there are too many fossilized bones from too many epochs and eras and periods for it to be otherwise. The most intense and contradictory relationships we have developed with nature involve the other creatures capable of killing or eating us—the giant bears and cats, wolves, and, in the sea, the sharks. Their cruising shadows kindle age-old memories of loss and hardship.

The four largest fish ever caught on a rod and reel were taken by one Alfred Dean. Each fish was a great white shark, and each weighed more than a ton. Off the Australian coast, Dean laid down a trail of whale oil and steer blood from his boat to draw the sharks within casting range. He awoke one night at 2 a.m. to hear and feel an enormous presence banging and shaking the hull of his boat. By the next morning, he had landed a white shark 16 feet long and weighing 2,333 pounds. After landing a still-heavier great white less than a year later, Alfred Dean in 1955 caught a 1,600-pound shark. He attached this fish to his boat and used it for bait. A giant appeared in the sea to attack the smaller shark. Dean landed that one, too, a 2,536-pound great white.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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