Last week, as I’m sure someone told you when you were on the way to the beach, a great white shark (or a basking shark, or some such big-and-toothy critter) was spotted off the coast of southern Maine.
Later that week, as I enjoyed Shark Week programming (or maybe it was when I was re-watching “Jaws” for the 47th time), I began reflecting on (or obsessing about) sharks, and the relatively low chance (or so experts tell you) that I’ll ever end up as shark bait myself.
Just call me “Chum.”
Of course, I rationalized, there’s relatively no chance of me ending up on the wrong end of a shark looking for a seal-shaped human to munch on. That’s partly because I’ve lost a lot of weight recently, but mostly because all of my swimming now takes place in freshwater lakes, where even the most despicable bucket-stockers have not yet introduced any great whites.
But what if I end up down on Old Orchard Beach on a whim? Or York Beach? Those big ol’ John-Chompers might be lurking nearby. Right? What should I do?
As my panic was reaching a fever pitch, my wife sent me a news item that focused on a town in Florida where we’d vacationed a few years back. It turns out that three people got chomped by sharks in (get this!) “The Shark Bite Capital of the World” over a 24-hour span.
Two were surfers, who tend to look a lot like seals (or, as I call them, “Purina Shark Chow”) as they paddle on their boards with their arms and feet dangling in the water. But one was a 51-year-old man who was wading in shallow water.
Add a fishing rod, and that was me, just a few short years ago.
Heck, I figured, I’m lucky to have any legs left! I waded with sharks!
During one of those trips to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, I stopped by a bait shack where I chatted with the proprietor, who told me the reports of abundant sharks was no joke.
“I know a guy who flies the advertising banners up and down the beach all day,” said the man, who sounded a lot like Captain Quint from my favorite shark movie. “He said if you saw what he saw lurking just offshore, you’d never step a toe in the water.”
Which, of course, is not an option. We’re all water-lovers, right? We’ve got to hop in and cool off once in awhile, don’t we?
Then, finally, I calmed down and looked through my past stories, looking for a voice of reason. Someone who would keep me from going off the deep end. Or jumping the shark, you might call it.
Thankfully, two years ago, I interviewed University of New England researcher James Sulikowski, who knows so much about sharks that he has been regularly featured in Discovery Channel’s Shark Week offerings.
That interview took place (surprise!) after sharks were spotted of the shores of southern Maine. And since I highly doubt that shark behavior has changed much over the past two years, I’ll share Sulikowski’s wisdom with you again.
“Sharks in general are misunderstood. Most people have this innate fear of sharks because of, you know, ‘Jaws’ and everything that we have grown up with,” Sulikowski said at the time. “But there is no doubt about it: In their environment, they are top predators. If they were killing machines, we would be in serious trouble.”
Luckily, they’re not. Killing machines, that is. At least when it comes to John-chomping.
“In Maine waters, it’s a great place to be,” he told me. “There’s never been an unprovoked shark attack in Maine. Our waters are pretty safe.”
Of course, I couldn’t leave that alone. I had to play the what-if game. I had to ask the shark expert the question that I figured might, someday, very well save my life. Or at least my leg.
What do I do if the worst case actually happens? What if a shark stops by for dinner?
“I would say, keep doing what you’re doing,” Sulikowski told me. “Don’t freak out. That’s one of the worst things you can do. The shark, if it wanted to eat you, it already would have, probably. Just keep doing what you’re doing, leisurely making your way back to shore.”
That tactic sounded good then, and sounds good now. Then Sulikowski put shark attacks in perspective with a quote that still makes me laugh.
“You have far more chance of being bitten by another human being on a subway in New York than you do getting bit by a shark,” he said.
Now, I suppose, I’m ready to go back in the water. I reserve the right, however, to avoid New York subways for a few more years.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” will be released by Islandport Press in October.
Watch: Shark spotted off Maine coast