Ah, it’s Shark Week once again. The hyper-drama of the series always triggers in my mind the recollection of my peaceful encounter with Barney the Black-tip.
Barney and I met in gin-clear water near a cay in Turks & Caicos, on a very sunny day in 2005. I had gone there to fish for bonefish and write about it for American Angler. On the day I was to leave, I had two hours in the morning go snorkeling over the coral reef a mile off shore.
While riding on the catamaran to get to the reef, our guide, Martin, turned to our group of five snorkelers and said, “If you see a good-sized black-tip, that’s Barney. He’ll just check you out and leave.”
The information didn’t seem to bother anyone. I doubted I’d actually see anything resembling a shark.
Once in the water, I drifted along by myself, enjoying everything a healthy tropical reef can offer. I saw multitudes of wrasses, butterfly fishes, grunts, and parrot fish.
After about half an hour, I saw something straight ahead, high in the water column, an object that seemed lighter than the blue background of the ocean. It was moving, and becoming more clear in the sunlight.
Then, in an instant, it took shape: it was a shark heading straight for me. I could see that this was a black-tip, not a notably dangerous species, and I was not much alarmed. But, still: this was a shark, it had some size, and it was closing in gracefully. When it was about twenty feet in front of me, it veered to my left and came broadside about ten feet away.
He rolled his cat-like eye at me, while slightly rocking his body. I looked right back at him while I continued to glide in the current.
What is he going to do? I wondered.
After about three seconds consideration, Barney eased away, dismissing me without hurry.
I decided to follow him. But even with my swim fins, I could not keep up, kicking as hard as I could while Barney propelled himself with little effort. He disappeared into the horizon of water.
Back at the catamaran, I told the guide quietly that I had a close meeting with Barney.
“Oh, what did you think?” Martin said.
“Barney lost interest when he saw me up close.”
The guide nodded. “He was looking for a fish bag. See, blacktips will sneak up on spear fishermen and steal their bag of fish that they have on a rope tied to their waist. Barney looked for that line trailing behind you, but when he didn’t see it, he knew you had nothing to offer. Off he goes.”
No one else reported seeing Barney. I must have disappointed him so much he left the reef entirely.
What would I be writing now if I encountered a different species? I might not be writing anything at all. A bull shark or tiger shark might have ended my Earthly outing right there — by very remote bad odds.
About ten shark species are considered dangerous to humans, out of a total of nearly 400 known species. The terror and pain of an attack are beyond imagining. But we suffer much more from human-on-human assault, bad weather, car accidents, insects, and gravity than we will ever suffer shark (or bear or alligator or wolf) attack.
Humans, however, like to scare themselves, so the spectacle of a shark attack — and the magnificence of sharks themselves — send us to this year’s television programming, with its mix of halfway decent science, incredible videography, and loud talking. Really, the two things that bug me the most about Shark Week are the utterly over-heated, scripted narration and on-camera speech, especially the bubble-infused underwater audio of scuba divers: “He’s coming in hot!” “Mega-shark below the cage!” “My mother is a fish!”
Sometimes I just watch on mute. I don’t want to hear the shouting white guys — I want to see the sharks.
That’s a reason I recall fondly my meeting with Barney: I got a good look at a full grown shark in its own environment, and I swam away. I should not forget, however, that Barney was hungry. How tough might he have been with me if I did have fish in a bag?
Since 1749, Turks & Caicos has recorded two shark attacks, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). That’s astronomically few, although I’d bet that any number of nasty encounters with reef and black-tip sharks go unreported (about 16 percent of shark bites in Florida are attributed to black-tips). Just one fatal black-tip attack has been recorded by the ISAF (based on data going back to 1580). The most recent ISAF report, issued this past February, says that worldwide in 2015 sharks killed six people in unprovoked attacks, with the single American fatality occurring in Hawaii.
In 2014, 4,679 Americans suffered fatal work injuries, including 793 attributed to falling, slipping, or tripping. OSHA has plenty of reports, videos, and instruction for guarding against falls, but we have no general “Fall-Down Week” as dramatic as Shark Week.
Of course, nothing beats a huge, sleek, toothy monster. Gravity has no face. The shark countenance has a predatory symmetry that humans recognize at a primal level. Such animals are sublime.
Despite sharks’ inherent magnificence, much of Shark Week runs on manufactured danger, whether it’s scuba-bros in plastic boxes amid perturbed great whites (“Dickie can’t secure the door!”) or outright anthropomorphic nonsense (no animal is a “serial killer”). But then again, it’s television. What do I expect? Even National Geographic gets in on the act with its competing SharkFest, which at least sounds a bit more celebratory.
One thing to remember is the complete artifice of humans deliberately interacting with sharks. The fish don’t usually see us approaching them. We’re annoying intentionally, but I can’t deny that our interference often results in crucial data, like that derived from the great-white tracking done by OCEARCH, or from the shark tagging seen on Shark Week.
Peter Benchly, author of Jaws, described the human-and-shark conundrum succinctly: “We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: The ocean is not our territory — its theirs.”