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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH SHARKS

August 8, 2015

A couple of weeks ago Halifax Media Services, parent company of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, carried an editorial entitled “A Day at the Beach.” The column came in the wake of eight shark attacks along the North Carolina coast within a few weeks in early summer. Many folks became afraid to go near the ocean along the Carolina coast. The editorial went on to report there are an average of nineteen shark attacks each year in the United States and an average of only one fatality every two years according to National Geographic.

People are more likely to die from falling out of bed, from falling off of a ladder, or from falling icicles than from sharks. Weather related trauma from heat, freezing, strong wind, or lightning strikes are more hazardous than sharks.

Compared to other animals, sharks are actually relatively safe for humans. For example, Cows cause the death of about twenty Americans each year, mostly from blunt-force trauma. Horses kill about twenty people annually in the United States alone. About thirty American deaths are caused by dogs each year. Jellyfish can claim the lives of up to forty people each year. Stinging insects kill about one hundred people in our country every year and that doesn’t include ants, especially fire ants, responsible for another fifty deaths annually.

World-wide Disease-carrying mosquitoes kill about 800,000 people every year. Snakes are responsible for nearly 50,000 deaths each year. Hippos claim the lives of 2,900 people around the world each year. Crocodiles kill about 2500 people across the world annually. The big cats – lions, tigers, leopards – combined kill less than two hundred people each year. The number one killer of humans year after year is not surprising. We are more likely to be the victim of other humans.

As far as shark deaths, I found this quote attributed to the World Wildlife Federation. “Using data on shark catches, discards and mortality rates worldwide, the researchers estimated that approximately 100 million sharks are killed per year by humans.”

Consider that in 2014 there were only three fatal shark attacks on humans world-wide.

“Jaws,” a 1975 film directed by Steven Spielberg, was based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name. I saw the movie on television just two days before I went deep sea fishing off the Outer Banks of North Carolina aboard the Albatross, a forty-five foot shallow-draw craft. All day long I thought of a line from the movie, “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.”

Two close encounters with sharks stand out in my memory, one when I was five years old, the second when I was fourteen.

When my grandparents visited the South Carolina coast, they didn’t rent an oceanfront house. In fact, they rarely saw the beach. They preferred Murrells Inlet.

In those days, the quiet fishing village offered few accommodations. The main attraction was the marina. Shrimp trawlers, charter boats, and a few privately owned vessels occupied the slips.

Black gnats and mosquitoes swarmed. The air was pungent with the smell of fish. At low tide, the pluff mud, alive with fiddler crabs, added to the odor. The aroma of Pappy’s cigar was like perfume mingled among the other smells.

The house that became Oliver’s Lodge was built in 1860, the same year South Carolina seceded from the Union. Now known as Oliver’s, it is the oldest restaurant on the Grand Strand.

Oliver’s Lodge was where Mammy and Pappy stayed on the coast. Pappy rented a bateau, a small fishing boat. Mammy perched in a rocker on the porch of the lodge and crocheted receiving blankets for her ever-increasing number of grandbabies.

I remember the time when I traveled to Murrells Inlet with Pappy, Mammy, and Uncle Wesley, the youngest of their nine children.

The men were going fishing. Uncle Wesley was determined to catch a shark. At five years of age, I was thrilled to be included on this adventure with two of my heroes.

Mammy was concerned that I might get sunburned. She insisted that I wear a long sleeved-shirt and blue jeans. She prevailed upon Pappy to buy a straw hat for me.

Mammy’s charge to Pappy was to bring us all back safely.

Wearing the new straw hat, I sat in the middle of the small wooden rowboat between Pappy and Uncle Wesley. Uncle Wesley, a strapping teenager, positioned himself between the oar locks. He did the rowing. We tried our luck in a deep saltwater creek that was winding through the marsh.

Pappy was casting with a rod and reel. I was jigging with a short cane pole. We both used shrimp for bait. Uncle Wesley used a contrived casting rig with a large hook, a piano wire leader, a copper float robbed from a toilet tank, and a chicken gizzard.

I caught a few small spots. Pappy landed two nice flounder and several sea trout.

Uncle Wesley had no luck, but he was persistent. Finally, he hooked a shark. He fought for thirty minutes or more, until the exhausted predator came next to the boat. Only the ominous looking dorsal fin was out of water.

Pappy said, “Cut him loose!”

Uncle Wesley wanted to savor his fine catch. “Just let me look at him.”

Pappy relented, “Drag him in the boat and hit him in the head with that oar.”

My uncle did just that.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for the size of the shark. It was every inch of five feet long! Uncle Wesley grabbed his trophy by the gill with his right hand. Standing up in the small boat, he lifted the rod high with his left hand. Several hard tugs and considerable rocking of the boat brought the big fish tumbling over the gunwale, thrashing into the bateau. The rough tail grazed my leg which was protected by blue jeans. Thank you, Mammy!

The boat pitched from side to side. Uncle Wesley clobbered him with the oar, striking the animal’s head which was just inches from his captor’s bare feet.

The shark was perfectly still. Only his gills moved as he labored to breathe. A fish out of water, he seemed to be in his death throes. The fierce creature looked much bigger in the small rowboat than he had seemed in the black brine.

For good measure, Uncle Wesley slammed the oar into the shark’s head a second time. The fish reacted violently, furious at the insult. Uncle Wesley pummeled him again. The monster bared his formidable teeth, prepared to attack.

I was sitting between Pappy and the fish. My grandfather reached over me, accidently knocking my new straw hat into the water. Pappy grasped the shark’s tail with both hands. Like a Scot hurling a caber at the Highland Games, in one motion he flung the fish out of the boat into the deep. The boat rocked dramatically, teetering almost to the point of tipping over. The shark disappeared below the surface.

My hat drifted away, floating with the tide toward the open sea. I started to climb overboard to retrieve my treasure. Pappy grabbed me with the same strong grip that had expelled the shark.

“Wesley, let’s get the hat.”

I think Pappy had in mind rowing to the hat. Uncle Wesley had different idea. He ripped off his tee shirt, dived overboard, and swam with the current toward the straw flotsam. Pappy took the oars and rowed, following his youngest son through the same current into which the ferocious shark had so recently vanished.

Mission accomplished! I got my hat back. Uncle Wesley caught a shark. Pappy got us back safely in time for a seafood supper. Best of all, we shared a great fish story!

The second encounter occurred when I was a sophomore in high school. After two heart attacks and a stroke, driving an automobile was difficult for my grandfather and unsafe for everybody in his path. I got a South Carolina driver’s license when I was fourteen. After that, I became Pappy’s designated driver.

One spring day Pappy took me out of school to take him fishing. We drove to Daytona Beach, Florida, and we fished for a week. Pappy’s doctor had told him that he could fish only every other day. He chartered a boat. On the off days, we drove all over Florida, going to spring training camps for major league baseball teams.

On fishing days we went on the boat to the Gulf Stream, angling for red snapper, bottom-dwelling fish. Our double hook baited with squid, we fished a few turns off the ocean bottom.

Pappy was an excellent fisherman. By the time he got his line to the bottom and cranked it up a few turns, he would have a fish. Because his arm was weak, he would hand me his rod and reel, and I would hand him mine. I reeled in the fish while he hooked another. Many times he had two snappers on the double hook.

In three days’ fishing, we caught red snapper, 600 hundred pounds worth, dressed, frozen, and put on ice.

We still had one day of fishing to go. We got to the boat early that last day. Pappy announced, “Cap’n, I want to go trolling today.”

We landed several king mackerel. Then we went further out to the Gulf Stream. We stopped moving for lunch. The clear blue water of the Gulf Stream was like glass. We were about twenty miles off the coast of Florida.

When we finished lunch, the second mate, a couple of years older than I, asked, “Wanna’ go swimming?”

“Go ahead,” Pappy said.

I stood on the transom and dived headfirst into the Gulf Stream. I swam in the warm water ten or fifteen minutes before climbing back into the boat.

As we continued trolling, we caught dolphins, some of the most colorful fish in the ocean. These are not porpoises. A dolphin is called mahi-mahi in Hawaii. They fight like a bream. Imagine having a twenty-pound bream on the end of your line.

I hooked a large bull dolphin. The fish darted back and forth. All of a sudden, it started running straight to the boat. I reeled as fast as I could trying to understand why the fish behaved so oddly.

Then I saw a dorsal fin rise up out of the water. The fish on my line was being chased by a ten-foot-long shark. The shark closed in, and the fish retreated. The shark followed, and the fish fled. I felt a strong thump and then dead weight on my line. The shark had cut the fish in half. I reeled in the head.

It took me a moment to realize; only minutes earlier I had been swimming with the sharks!

Before our vacation on Pawleys Island, one of our sons asked, “Dad, have you noticed that Shark Week on the Discovery Channel often coincides with our week at the beach?”

One late afternoon, the tide was coming in. I was swimming with our children just beyond the breakers. Riding up on a wave, I saw a mullet jump. The fish was being pursued! And then a dorsal fin arched in the waves just a few yards away! Thankfully, it was a porpoise!

I realized again that when I swim in the ocean, I am not alone.

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