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ANIMALS

Waltzing a Great White : A Rescue Attempt at Marine World

November 16, 1986|GARY KARASIK | Gary Karasik is a lecturer in the English department at UC Santa Barbara.

Several years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, I got a telephone call at 5 in the morning from a friend. Divers were needed at Marine World, which was then in Redwood City. No time to explain. Grab your gear and get down there.

At Marine World, I was waved through the gate and directed to a large saltwater tank. I lugged my gear up to the entry deck. A man who looked like a drill sergeant yelled, "You! Get your gear on and get in the water. Swim the shark around as long as you can. Don't just stand there! Go!"

"Shark?"

"The great white! Go!"

I hurried to strap on my gear, certain I had misunderstood. Surely they wouldn't send me unprotected into the water with one of the world's deadliest predators; the shark would be in some kind of safety harness. After sliding noiselessly into the water, I looked below me. The tank was 40 feet deep and 60 feet in diameter, with a realistic-looking reef in the center. But there was no diver. And no shark. I sank slowly, the cold of the water chilling my hands; in my hurry, I had forgotten my gloves.

Then, swimming freely from behind the reef, came a big, white shark. I couldn't move. It swam lazily, following the contour of the tank. As it moved in my direction, I tried to back away, and I heard my air tank clang into the steel wall behind me. Where was the other diver? Had the shark attacked him? Now it veered directly toward me.

And there, swimming along beside it, was the diver, giving the shark an occasional push to keep it on course. The gray-white fish was eight feet long from nose to tail and about a foot thick. It could barely move under its own power. Its opaque, white eyes were glazed.

I found out later that the shark had been netted in Bodega Bay by commercial fishermen, who had then radiotelephoned Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to ask if anyone wanted to study the fish. Marine biologist John McCosker had said yes and had sent a truck equipped with a water tank in which a pump constantly forces oxygen across a fish's gills. A white shark has a very rudimentary circulatory system and must move its body to augment the pumping of its heart. If it can't move, it can't get oxygen and nutrients to its muscles, and it can't get rid of the lactic acid that its muscles produce. If it stays immobile too long, it will eventually either poison itself or suffocate.

Even with all the precautions, the shark was in poor condition by the time it got to Steinhart. But it was healthy and young, perhaps only 6 months old (mature great whites can attain 40 feet in length; they can swallow 100-pound sea lions whole). McCosker had the fish put in a holding pool, and he and staff members exercised it until it began to recover. As it did, it became too lively for the small, shallow pool. Needing a bigger facility, McCosker had called upon Marine World. But on the way, on U.S. 101, the tank-truck had got caught in a traffic jam. That last, long period of immobility had proved nearly too much. Released into the reef tank, the young shark sank to the bottom.

McCosker wanted desperately to keep the shark alive. "We hadn't been able to study great whites because they perceive their observers as food," he says. "The reef tank presented an unparalleled opportunity." The call had gone out for volunteer divers; enough came to keep rotating in 20-minute shifts for the next 48 hours.

Which is how I found myself in the tank with the shark. The diver pointed to me, then to the shark, then swam away. Now unguided, the shark headed toward the wall; in another few seconds, it would crash. Reaching out, I firmly pushed the animal's head parallel to the wall. The shark, nearly unconscious, turned in the new direction. I watched it move away. Its jerky motions slowed, and it started to sink. I pushed away from the wall and, catching up, I reached gingerly around it, not sure how to hold it, like the first time I danced a slow dance in grade school. It slid pliantly into my arms and snuggled against my chest. Its skin, soft as velvet in one direction, was as coarse as sandpaper in the other. We swam.

Moving in perfect unison, the shark and I dream-waltzed as though we were lovers. And when, after a time, another diver tapped my shoulder to cut in, I waved him off; this was still my dance. But as my cold-numbed hand came off the animal, I saw my palm had been flayed by the shark's skin. I let the diver take my place and, in a daze that abated as I rose, I kicked to the surface, feeling my stinging palm.

Someone pulled the air tank from my back and took it away to be refilled. The first diver sat, flippers in the water, ready to go back down.

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