Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Great White Beauty

I haven’t had time to write, or do much of anything lately but work on a project that’s due the 15th. But tonight I had to take time for this:

As a kid, there was a book I loved (and yes, I still have it--and I know right where it is!) called “African Great Cats.” There’s an anecdote in there I’ve always remembered:

A tourist on safari hears a growling cough in the dark beyond the tent, and, frightened and excited, asks his guide, “Is that a lion?” “No,” says the guide, “that’s a hyena.” It happens again, a low growl in the night. “But that MUST be a lion!” the tourist says. “Still a hyena,” the guide responds. It happens again. And again. “You’ll know when it’s a lion,” the guide says. Disappointed,  the tourist finally falls asleep. Suddenly, a growl begins, in a register so low that it makes human blood vibrate before human ears can register sound, and then the roar of a lion splits the night wide open.

“See,” says the guide calmly, to the tourist who is frozen, dumbstruck, bolt upright on his cot, “when you hear a hyena, you may think to yourself, ‘Is that a lion?’ But when you hear a real lion, you have no doubt. You didn’t even have to ask.”

It’s after 10 pm and I just got back from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. At night—when there’s almost no one around—the Aquarium is a very different place. I’m looking forward to spending more time there.

But tonight I got to see, for the first time,  the Great White shark that’s been on exhibit since the end of August.

The huge Outer Bay tank was dark. They’d just switched off the lights, and for long moments we just stood there, watching tuna and silvery barracuda flash by the giant window in the faint light from the viewing area. A shark swam in a curving line up from the depths. “Is that her?” someone asked. “That’s a hammerhead,” someone else replied, and as it came closer we could see the distinctive-shaped head. There are two or three hammerheads in that exhibit, and each time one appeared someone asked—“Is that her?” No—each time.  A Galapagos shark came up—also no. And then again, another. Still no.

And then the Great White shark rose, in a fast, clean line from the dark below and NO ONE had to ask. When a real lion roars, you know it. And when you see a Great White Shark, rising, turning in the blue depths before you, heading straight at you for a breath-stopping instant, before veering up and away in line with the curving window and passing so close overhead that you could reach out and touch her through those inches of window glass… you don’t have to ask.

She’s beautiful. I mean, drop-dead, take-your-breath-away BEAUTIFUL. She’s young, and ‘only’ about five or six feet long, and so perfectly adapted to her environment that even in an aquarium tank, even with the lighting turned off (which makes the tiled back wall of the tank very obvious), I felt a shiver. A thrill of fear, or just a primal acknowledgement of power. Of grace. Of beauty.

She’s darker above, and lighter below, and the tips of her fins look black, and no one could ever mistake her for anything but exactly what she is. (That might be a life lesson right there.) And she’s perfect—still young enough that there is hardly any of the scarring we’re used to seeing in those open-jawed, feeding-frenzy Discovery documentaries. Her skin is smooth, glowing. She glides through the water with no visible effort, and is gone. Disappears. The tank isn’t THAT big. Each time she reappears again, materializing suddenly, I can hear, or feel, the gasps from the handful of people around me. Maybe it’s me. I could stand there and watch her all night. I keep forgetting to breathe.

If you have a chance, if you’re anywhere near Monterey, go see her. In 2004, the first time the Aquarium had a Great White on exhibit—the first live Great White EVER on exhibit anywhere—Peter Benchley came to see it.

If you can’t make it, you can learn more about her on the Aquarium’s Great White Shark blog:

or read the press release here:

Ninety-eight percent of the living space on this beautiful planet is underwater. And for millions of years the shark has been the apex predator there. I’ve been in open water with sharks; one of my favorite dives ever was 100 feet down, where there were sharks as far as I could see in any direction—20 to 30 of them at any one time. Three, four, maybe five species, ranging from little blacktip reef sharks at three to four feet, to lemon sharks and nurse sharks over nine feet long. It was an incredible experience. The more so for being completely unexpected.

But tonight I’m grateful for glass viewing windows, and for people who dedicate their lives to preserving the planet and all the creatures who live here, and for coming face-to-face with Great White beauty.