How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great White Shark

A fanatical fear of sharks scares a longtime surfer out of the water, but an offbeat website and many hours with the Discovery Channel help her learn to love the ocean again.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great White Shark

By the time the news of Doug Niblack’s shark attack reached my inbox, it had been five years since I retired my own surfboard.

“It was just like the movies,” Niblack told reporters. His longboard struck something that resembled a rock, except the rock had a dorsal fin and was moving. A Northwest native and a regular at the “The Cove,” a popular surfing break along the Oregon coast, Niblack was aware that sharks there attacked with some frequency, and he was now standing on one.

To witnesses on shore, Niblack looked as though he was standing knee-deep in a whirlpool, fifty feet out. The shark had attacked from below, like a locomotive, knocking away Niblack’s board. He rode its back until the shark became disoriented, turned and swam out to sea, leaving him to paddle safely to the beach.

For many weekends over the course of many years, I too had surfed the Cove. Reading the story from the safety of my New York office cubicle, I looked down at my legs in relief. Selling my board and wetsuit had been the right choice. An anxiety inside me abated; I felt like I had left a bank just minutes before a robbery.

Surfing belongs to thrill seekers. Elusive perfect waves, the charge of paddling to catch them and the rush of riding down their steep faces are all elements of dreams and addictions. But what movies and surf videos don’t show is the waiting. To reach the highs, you must spend countless hours in the water, alone with your thoughts and the sound of harmless chops lapping against your board while you wait for waves.

During these lulls, most surfers’ heads are giddy with the prospect of glittering, curling crests. Mine was filled with beady black eyes and rows of serrated teeth. They waited for waves; I waited for a two-ton force to strike me from below at forty miles per hour and rip one of my dangling legs from my body.

Anxiety prevented me from enjoying the sport, and it occurred to me that my brain and those belonging to real surfers were very different organs. During my five years in Oregon I faked it as a surfer. But my fear of sharks turned fanatical. Violent images of sharks antagonizing small towns from horror classics had burrowed their way too deeply into my mind.

Photo courtesy Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr.
Photo courtesy Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr.

Even after I hung up my gear, I couldn’t shake the specter of the shark. Treading water in the deep end of a swimming pool was enough for me to sense the shadow of a large fish emerging beneath me.

Research helped me to make sense of the beast that held my imagination hostage. I loved that carcharodon carcharias was essentially a spectacular dinosaur still roaming our seas, and I developed a late-night habit of watching the species on YouTube.

Then, about a year and a half ago, I discovered a website called Ocearch. With high-octane graphics and social media integration, it seemed rather flashy for a non-profit and felt more like a webpage for an extreme sport like motocross. But Ocearch was the name of an oceanic research ship outfitted with a custom-made lift used to capture and tag great whites in order to study their migratory patterns.

I became consumed by one of the site’s features, the Global Shark Tracker. Dotting a satellite map of the world were “pings” representing tagged sharks journeying the coastal shores of the Northeast United States and South Africa. The pings came in two colors. If a shark hadn’t surfaced in more then thirty days, its ping was blue. A brighter and more urgent orange ping indicated the shark had made surface contact anywhere between the past thirty days and twenty-four hours.

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Ocearch's mapping tool shows great white shark locations around the world.
Ocearch’s mapping tool shows great white shark locations around the world.

Ocearch also names their tagged sharks and gives them online profiles that reminded me of the few times I had used the popular matchmaking app Tinder. Some sharks’ profiles include a thumbnail picture of their dorsal fin with the eerie decoration of a little antenna, like the kind you would find sticking out of the back of a Volkswagen Golf. Others have sexier shots of their angular noses or entire bodies. Mature females are often named after crewmembers’ mothers, while others are bestowed with odd, abstract monikers, similar to names you might find on the hull of a boat, like Success, Courage and Vindication.

I got acquainted with the Ocearch sharks by clicking their pings and studying their dossiers, making personal connections with each one. I fell in love with Mary Lee, a sixteen-foot female tagged off Cape Cod, and also with Oprah, a smaller female from Mossel Bay, South Africa, whose name obviously evokes someone wise and deeply trustworthy.

Ocearch’s Facebook page boasts more than 250,000 “likes.” At one point last year, Mary Lee’s rare migration path made her particularly popular. Though sharks’ migration patterns are still largely unknown, many scientists suspect great whites, like other large fish, like to retreat to warmer climes in winter months — and indeed, most of those tagged on Ocearch do just that.

But Mary Lee had other plans. This independent-minded shark poked around the Mid-Atlantic for the first part of February, and then, in an unprecedented move, headed north to New York. Cheeky status updates tracked her progress.

“Mary Lee continues to the North while bending to the West. Heading toward New Jersey/New York City. OMG is Mary Lee a Jersey Girl?”

And eventually: “Mary Lee continues East! Is she headed to the Gulf Stream to warm up?”

Mary Lee's route through the Atlantic.
Mary Lee’s route through the Atlantic.

Status updates like these received hundreds of likes, shares and comments. As Mary Lee’s travels progressed, so did the interest of Ocearch followers. Facebook friends left comments expressing their fascination with the shark, even affection for her: “I think she is lonely and looking for love!” one commenter posted. Mary Lee’s rogue winter won me over, too. Maybe she just needed a break from things. We’ve all been there once or twice.

It got to the point where I would check the pings of the Ocearch sharks during my morning coffee and make sure they were a safe distance from my Brooklyn apartment. I had dark premonitions that one day I would open the Ocearch page and see a headline reading, “Mary Lee devours Florida teen,” but was relieved when I found them reliably going about their sharky lives, snacking on wounded seals and cruising the oceans. Witnessing the tagged few reassured me that the rest of the great white population was likely up to the same docile business. Similar to a Doppler report for fair weather, Ocearch’s Global Shark Tracker made me feel in control of this particular predator, like goldfish I had won at a carnival.

Assigning personalities to animals is anything but a new phenomenon. Disney has been at it for years; from the Bambi era to “March of the Penguins,” the studio has given charming traits to mammals and sea creatures alike in order to tell stories of romance, courage and sacrifice. In the original trailer for “Bambi,” a voiceover proclaims, “Bambi! The story of a deer who learns love means many things to many people” — even though all the “people” in the movie are skunks, rabbits and owls.

By anthropomorphizing great whites on social media, Ocearch is applying this formula to a predator, which is a marketable way to promote shark research, but could also potentially change our relationship to the fish. That we might care about a great white’s well-being, even if it’s about their emotional health rather than something real, like their dwindling population (they are listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the WWF extinction risk list) is progress. By giving endangered animals names and personalities that remind you of your mother, conservationists are able to draw compassion out of otherwise indifferent people.

But sharks aren’t people, don’t eat out at restaurants, don’t go on dates with other sharks and don’t get themselves into cute compromising positions like kittens in coffee cups. My relationship to the Ocearch sharks wasn’t one of friendship, but I was warming to them. And meanwhile, Mary Lee’s Facebook friends aren’t afraid of her; they just want her to be happy. “I think she is just trying to survive and find something to eat!” wrote one fan. “Bless her heart out there in the big ole ocean…”

Once, as the sun was setting out over the Pacific, I sat on my board nervously waiting for a wave and a cute harbor seal popped up next to me. It had long black eyelashes and blinked at me as we both floated side by side in the ocean. Flaring in and out, its nostrils created a cloud of condensation around its bald head. I looked it straight in its face and realized that I was within five feet of actual shark bait. We were a two-course meal.

“Get away from me!” I screamed. Fear had distorted my voice into a pitch I didn’t recognize.

“Get out of here!” I yelled again, throwing scoops of water at its face. The seal disappeared beneath the water and playfully reappeared on the other side of my board. One of us is not getting eaten, I thought to myself, swinging around on to my belly and paddling for my life back to shore.

As surfers, we nicknamed dusk “dinner time,” because this was supposedly when sharks were most actively feeding. Our vocabularies swirled with foreboding shark references passed down to us by surfing lore and through the media. In reality, the apex predator trolled the waters beneath us, crucially moderating that great underwater ecosystem by eating the ill and weak, keeping life below the surface clean and moving. But we didn’t care: A certain notoriety made us fear for our limbs while out on the ocean. It didn’t matter that shark attacks are black swan events — anomalies, misunderstandings. The idea of sharks potentially mistaking humans for seals is ruinous to their reputation, and enough to scare me right out of the water.

The relatable narratives Ocearch gives their tagged sharks worked to assuage my fears. Sharks who were just looking to get by struck me as substantially less murderous than sharks looking to terrorize humans, as depicted in movies like “Jaws” and “Deep Blue Sea.”

But while movies use fear to sell tickets, TV shows use fear to sell science, or their version of it. The Discovery Channel spends seven days each summer dedicating a full slate of programming to the species called Shark Week. The popular series first aired in 1987 and is now the longest running “event” on cable television, with between 20 and 30 million people tuning in annually — and I’ve been among its most reliable viewers.

During Shark Week, viewers can watch a variety of shows about the species, from “Top Five Eaten Alive” — a show that reenacts five of the worst shark attacks of all time — to “Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever,” about the survivors of the sunken USS Indianapolis being terrorized by sharks.

One year, “MythBusters,” a popular Discovery Channel series dedicated to crafting scientific experiments that test the validity of rumors and old wives tales, did their own Shark Week episode. Here was an opportunity to allay some of the negative shark mythology! Instead, the show worked on figuring out if sharks were more interested in eating humans who are thrashing or humans who play dead. In the experiment, the show’s hosts donned mesh body suits and jumped into water swarming with sharks, then inserted themselves into their path, impressing upon viewers that their courage was all for the sake of a little information.

While the aim of these shows is to participate in myth-busting, the opportunity to educate is often overshadowed by the sensational depictions of sharks as man-eaters while TV hosts tempt nature to take a bite.

These production techniques are rampant in Shark Week programming. On one show a narrator says, “Great whites top the charts in unprovoked human attacks,” but doesn’t clarify how rare an attack actually is. In another, the narrator tells the viewer to “sit back, relax and try not get eaten.” Last year Shark Week debuted with a “documentary” about the Megalodon, a massive but extinct shark species. The special dramatized the shark’s violent capabilities, then misled viewers to believe that perhaps the shark is still out there, lurking in oceans’ depths.

Even the Ocearch crew briefly had a show on the History Channel called “Shark Wranglers,” which documented their tagging efforts. The show depicted a crew aboard a large boat that trolled the waters off the coast of South Africa in search of great whites. Scientists doing the tagging relied on several sport fisherman to land the sharks aboard Ocearch’s lift. Drama permeated the show, with shouts of bawdy encouragement as fishermen battled sharks on the end of thin lines, getting dangerously close to riled-up predators. Once the shark was successfully lured to the lift and raised out of the water, both the wrangling and science crew descended upon the lifeless fish like a NASCAR crew working urgently on an ailing stock car in the pit.

A trailer for “Shark Wranglers.”

While “Shark Wranglers” depicted a scientific mission, the show’s occasional suggestion of blood sport eclipsed the fact that the tagging and contact with the sharks was unprecedented and could lead to greater understanding of the species as a whole.

One Shark Week episode called “Ultimate Air Jaws” did prove to me that great whites don’t need to be provoked or treated like fuzzy animals in order for them to be seen as truly astounding creatures.

In the episode, a photographer uses a new camera called the Phantom to capture great whites breaching off the coast of South Africa. The camera is one of Hollywood’s fastest, used to film scenes intended to be shown in extreme slow motion. It takes pictures at 1,000 frames per second and can slow down a breech that only lasts for an instant, taking a full minute to let it unravel before the viewer’s eyes.

“Ultimate Air Jaws” features nearly a half-hour of slow-motion footage of great whites mid-attack on a seal decoy. In one assault, a shark’s conical snout breaks the water’s surface like the periscope of a submarine. Next to emerge from the ocean are its stony eyes, rolled back protectively in their sockets. Soon the entire upper body of the shark is out of the water and rotating through the sky. A sharp ridge runs down the length of the shark’s back, giving it a steely, mechanized feel, like a missile. Its gills flap rhythmically, pushing out cascades of white, foamy water. Finally its tail whips out of the ocean and the entire great white is airborne, particles of water bursting from its wetsuit-like flesh, teeth tearing into the limp seal decoy, an amazing animal in mid-air.

When I was in Oregon, after sun-soaked days of surfing I often camped along the Pacific coast. In my tent at night, I dreamed of clouds of red water, my fears flirting and mingling with obsession. Mornings brought a strange reassurance: If a shark ever mistook me for prey, at least I would finally get to know what one felt like. At least I could finally run my fingers along its sandpaper skin, feel its warm breath emanating from that cavernous mouth.

Similarly, watching the great white leap skywards from the ocean in “Ultimate Air Jaws” felt like getting in touch with my inner animal. The reality of a body designed millions of years ago to rule an entire food chain was on dramatic display. For once a show wasn’t pretending a shark could be funny, happy, mad or maniacal, just like us. Instead it was shown relying on instinct to hunt prey — a magnificent and complex process that humans haven’t engaged in for thousands of years. Television makes it seem like sharks are just another element in our universe, but upon the ocean, we tread and backstroke as mere specks in theirs.

Once, during a panicked paddle back to shore after allowing my imagination to spook me out of the water, I briefly realized the only trait we have in common with sharks and should associate with them is survival.

Now knowing sharks much better, I have developed a certainty about the animal: Their existence and ours are miracles of the same caliber. These days, I long to get back into the water.

Years ago, on a fall day after classes, I drove out to the Oregon coast for a sunset surf session. The grey sky made for poor visibility in the water, and the normally emerald Pacific had darkened to solid black by that evening. As I sat waiting for a wave, I felt something brush against my leg. With lightning speed, I was on my stomach with my legs out of the water, paddling feverishly to the beach. Too scared to look back, I never did see what had grazed me.

Chances are it was my imagination. On days like that, when I could see my legs disappearing at the knee on both sides of my board, I had a hard time staying sane, even while out on the water. But if it wasn’t all in my head, if it actually was the probing brush of a great white shark, I’d like to think it was only trying to survive out there in that big ocean.