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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

A False Alarm, No Ifs, Ands or Bites

September 22, 2000|PETE THOMAS

The Olympic triathlon is over, the athletes have negotiated Sydney Harbor without so much as a single shark bite, and they have dutifully thanked the divers sent in beforehand to keep the man-eaters at bay.

The divers indeed are deserving of praise--having been able to keep a straight face while pretending to protect athletes who needed no protection in the first place.

The threat of sharks?

"It's a bit of a joke," says Mike Bhana, a film producer with Natural History New Zealand. "I'd be more concerned with swimming into a hypodermic biffed out by some AIDS-infected tranny hooker with a heroine addiction."

Bhana has an interesting way of putting things, but you get the point.

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We bring this up because so much publicity was given the triathlon because it involved swimming across a stretch of saltwater in an island nation known to have large sharks patrolling its coastline.

And because, while so many reporters filed stories about the protective measures being taken to ensure the athletes' safety, few, if any, reported that all the divers really were capable of doing was protecting themselves.

The Shark Pods they were using were developed in South Africa and emit an electrical field that repels sharks--most of the time--from a maximum range of only about 12 feet.

"So if the swimmers are that close to the divers they may be safe," Bhana said.

They weren't that close, of course. If they were, they might have seen the divers twiddling their thumbs.

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I met Bhana and his crew earlier this summer at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. They were there filming sharks as part of an "Animal Planet" series to air on the Discovery Channel, beginning in early fall.

Host of the show is Ian Gordon, the former curator of the Manly Aquarium in Sydney who now spends most of his time in shark-infested waters of the world, talking about his subjects, through an underwater microphone, while the film crew captures footage from all angles.

They spent two weeks on the mid-Pacific atoll, diving every day, often in the midst of dozens of Galapagos and smaller reef sharks. Though armed with Shark Pods, they did not have to use them.

After one such dive, when a comment was made about how calm the divers looked with so many potentially deadly predators around, Gordon credited years of experience and more than 15,000 hours logged underwater.

"What we do is promote that these are marvelous animals and they deserve to live and all that," he said. "But what we don't want to promote is that others try to do what we do.

"Galapagos sharks are considered man-eaters. They've had a couple of incidents here where divers got scared out of the water by Galapagos. The reality is, most of the time these animals are pretty sedate, but what they will do is, if you back away from them fast and get into a panic . . . the shark's going to get interested."

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One highlight of the Midway segment--the crew is putting together 13 half-hour episodes over a two-year period--will be rare underwater footage of a tiger shark attacking an albatross chick--with a wingspan of about four feet--that had landed in the lagoon.

"The shark had seven or eight goes at the bird and eventually killed the bird," Bhana said after his morning dive. "The bird was dead in the water and he came around and finished it off.

"He took the bird, came down past the camera with the bird in its mouth shaking it, and then he spat feathers out--he blew this big cloud of feathers out the sides of its mouth right in front of the camera. He then cruised around the camera and then dropped the bird in front of us again. We got it all."

So did the shark, eventually.

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Back to Sydney . . .

There are, of course, large sharks beyond Sydney Harbor and they occasionally come close to shore to feed, mostly at night, and very rarely on humans.

Ricky Chan, a doctoral student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of New South Wales, did find the skulls of sheep inside three large tiger sharks once.

"They're either from farmland washed into storm water, then into rivers after heavy rain, or possibly they're livestock cargo that has been thrown overboard," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the stomach of another tiger shark he found an unopened can of Coca Cola. His study, to find out what Sydney-area sharks eat, lasted three years and involved more than 100 sharks donated by fishermen.

Not one of them contained a hypodermic biffed out by an AIDS-infected tranny hooker with a heroin addiction, so Sydney's waters seem to be safer than even Bhana believes.

FISH STORIES

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