Back in the spring of 1969 while a senior at Harvard, I accepted a job at the Catalina Island School for Boys in Toyon Bay. The headmaster wanted me to develop a science curriculum that utilized the island and its waters as a natural laboratory. That meant I'd be SCUBA diving in salt water for the first time since any diving I did in the Midwest was in freshwater and I only free dove on my travels around the Mediterranean the summer before.
Diving in the ocean involved the possibility of seeing sharks, including the legendary "landlord" or great white. I will admit to feeling some trepidation about that. On my train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, I read a book about shark attacks that included stories of a few in SoCal waters. When I chose my dive gear at Ron Merker's Aquatic Center in Newport Beach, I selected the biggest, baddest dive knife I could find... the underwater version of a Jim Bowie knife. I was ready to defend myself against these vicious killers.
In 1975 Spielberg's "Jaws" hit the big screen. Portions of it had been filmed right here off Catalina... pretty strange to see giant kelp in the waters off New England while watching the movie. Before entering the theater, former Toyon student Barry Aires introduced me to a surfer who had massive scars all over his torso from an attack off Pt. Conception. After I returned to the island, I stopped SCUBA diving for several years. Then in 1978 Jean-Michel Cousteau saw me suiting up and, knowing my history, asked what got me back in the water. I told him I had recently seen "Jaws 2." He laughed.
If you're a frequent reader of my columns, you know that since those early days I have dived with sharks all over the world. I've even had a 14 ft great white swim past me near the East End Quarry while diving as Wyland's buddy. Yet, I still have all nine fingers so why the big concern about sharks? Landlubbers who see me at the dive park often ask "Aren't you afraid of the sharks?" Not really. Decades ago I made a promise that I would no longer eat shark meat if they left my tender flesh alone. They've kept that bargain... so far.
During an average year in the United States, less than one person is killed by sharks yet more than 3,300 people drown each year... and you still go swimming? There are more than 50,000 deaths on the nation's highways each year... yet you still drive the freeways on "the Big Island?" Texting while driving kills 5,-6,000 of them each year... yet many still send silly messages while at the wheel. Most of us get at least a little sleep each night... but 450 people die each year from falling out of bed!
When I arrived on Catalina way back when, one of my other great fears was lightning. About 50 people are killed each year by it... yet some still play golf in the rain. Not me! But then I don't roam the links on sunny days either. Nearly 27 people die each year from falling television sets and furniture... you wouldn't keep those dangerous objects in your home, would you? Some 21 people meet their maker annually while sky diving... you wouldn't jump out of a perfectly good airplane, would you? An average of seven die every year from fireworks... but I'm sure you don't play with those, do you?
We're fortunate we don't have big lawns here on the island because five poor souls are crushed by their riding lawn mowers each year. Shaking a vending machine to get your change or selection out actually causes death to twice as many people each year as sharks do. I won't even go into what falling coconuts do... but at Jean-Michel's Fiji resort there are many signs warning visiting divers to exercise caution when walking under the trees.
But let's look at the truly dangerous animals that many of you landlubbers encounter. It's a scary world out there. I won't even mention mosquitoes who transmit diseases that kill millions... oops, I just did. Bees kill more than 50 people each year... so please don't smell the roses. You wouldn't pet a strange dog would you? They kill about 30 people in 12 months. Surprisingly, cows are responsible for about 22 deaths each year. Got milk? I certainly hope not. Don't tell me you let your family members ride horses... these vicious beasts kill 20 poor souls each year. I wouldn't suggest hiking... you may run into a rattlesnake and they do away with 5.5 humans each annum.
And you're afraid of a fish that kills less than one person in the same time frame? Sorry, but the logic escapes me... and I have a Ph.D (yep, Piled higher and Deeper). The truth is THEY need to worry about US. A recent PEW study indicates humans kill about 100 million of them world wide each year. Many of these sharks just have their fins cut off and the living but dismembered body thrown back into the sea. Why? To make shark fin soup... and it is flavored with chicken stock. The shark's appendage adds no flavor or nutritional value... just texture. Sharks have much more to fear from humans than we have from them.
I'm not suggesting sharks are all warm and cuddly but of the more than 360 shark species, only a few are potentially dangerous. These include the bull, tiger, oceanic white tip and great white. Only the latter is found in our waters. Oh, and for the ladies who are afraid to dive with me because I might take them to "human infested waters," you have nothing to be concerned about. We all know from watching Shark Week that the really dangerous ones are referred to as MAN eaters. You have nothing to fear from them. Just watch out for me!
© 2013 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!
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Reef shark ("and they're worried about me?") and several of the truly dangerous species landlubbers encounter! .
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Dr. Bill Bushing.
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