As a child my favorite vacations were always the beach trips. Growing up in Charlotte, NC they were almost always to the many beaches on the SC coast. Most were at a place called Edisto Beach. It was north of Charleston and my parents had friends who owned a house there. It was a quiet and fairly undeveloped area that overflowed with wildlife. Pelicans, sea gulls, osprey, crabs, starfish, sand fleas and even the occasional dolphin off the coast all called Edisto home. However, it was an encounter with a Lemon shark that really changed the way I would look at the ocean for the rest of my life.
I was 9 years old and heading out early for another fun day on the beach. I loved the beach! What 9-year-old boy doesn’t? I loved swimming in the ocean, body surfing on the waves with my brother and the old man, crabbing on the docks, playing in the sand, the salt air, watching the pelicans flying uniformly above and just the whole atmosphere that surrounded the ocean. I loved eating the fresh seafood I got down there as well. I ate almost everything that came out of the ocean or the marsh. Shrimp, scallops, crabs, oysters, fish and just about anything that swam was at the top of my favorites list. This particular day I saw something unusual going on down the beach. There was a group of fishermen setting up gear down the beach, but they were different from what I was used to seeing. They were not a group of old men with a couple of lines in the water. They were young. They had huge reels and fishing poles. They had these big thick jackets that were loaded with all kinds of attachments. The other thing that really stood out was they had a rubber raft, the kind that you see as a rescue raft on some boats. All of this spurred my curiosity so I strolled down the beach to see what was going on. Two of the men were getting in the raft and took with them a huge hook that had a big piece of meat on it. The hook was attached to the line of one of the huge poles they had anchored in the beach. They began to row out to sea. I asked one of the men on shore, “What are you fishing for?” He looked down at me with a big smile and said, “Sharks!”
I was fascinated with sharks. ‘Jaws’ had come out a year or so before. I already had a love of sharks and that movie just fueled my interest. I could name most kinds by picture and if there was a report to be done in school, I always knew what my subject would be (assuming I hadn’t already used it so much that the teacher made me choose another topic). Despite my ‘knowledge’ of sharks, I really didn’t know them as well as I thought. Most information on them back in that time was that they were just mindless eating machines. They were devoid of intelligence or any redeemable features. As the line from Jaws says, “They just swim, eat and make little sharks.” Even at 9 I was very aware of the fact that animals were much more intelligent than people gave them credit for. I loved animals. My own research and every interaction I had ever had told me people vastly underestimated them in just about all areas, not just intelligence. However, for the most part I accepted the general view of sharks I had been taught. By the end of the day, I would see things differently.
After rowing out so far I could barely see them, the fisherman had returned to the beach and were now sitting on the beach waiting for something to hit their line. I was in awe of these guys. Only 9, I was looking at these big, muscular guys, with their fancy equipment, fishing for a ferocious beast and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I forgot about all my other beach activities and decided to spend the day with them. Time passed and nothing. 9 year olds are not known for their patience and I was no exception. The boredom was starting to set in when BAM! Something hit the line! The pole bent over to where I thought it was going to snap in half. The beach, which had been calm and serene now flew into a flurry of action. The fishermen all jumped up and each seemed to have a specific job. One grabbed the pole and tried to get it under control. Another grabbed binoculars and started scanning the ocean. One helped another put on one of the fancy vests and get it all hooked up. They were all excited, but nobody was more excited than me. “How cool is this!” I thought. My imagination ran wild thinking about what may be on the end of that line. I knew that stingrays could pull a pole down like that and put up a tremendous fight as they buried themselves in the sand, but when I saw the line swinging right and left in the surf I knew that this was no stingray. The fisherman took turns reeling in the line. The jackets they had were designed to be able to lock in the pole and give them added leverage. One would go until he tired out and then pass it off to another. After about 45 minutes I saw a dorsal fin right outside the breaking waves. They had a shark! I was thrilled! They continued to battle it. As they brought it in I could see this was not a small sand shark or anything like that. This was a good-sized animal. Finally, they dragged it through the breaking waves and up on the beach. It was a huge 11 ft. Lemon shark. They are called that for their yellow-brown to grey skin. They have two big dorsal fins and have the classic aggressive shark appearance. I was totally in awe of this massive animal and the men who had just caught it. The fishermen were celebrating and I was smiling ear to ear. I ran up to get a closer look and was amazed. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Things, however, were about to change.
The fishermen were celebrating and reliving the long fight it took to get the shark on the beach while I was studying every aspect of the animal. I was looking at the sleek body, the powerful muscles, the huge tail, the perfectly formed dorsal fins and of course the huge set of teeth inside the slightly opened mouth. The shark was still flexing and trying to move out of its fixed position on the sand. I admired its strength and flexibility. I was thinking what a gorgeous animal it was when out of the corner of my eye I saw one the fisherman coming towards the shark and I with something in his hand. A shot of reality hit me when I saw it was a baseball bat. I stepped back and then it started. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! The fisherman began to beat the shark over the head with the bat. Blood and guts have never bothered me, even as a child, as long as what it is coming from is already dead (after all it’s just the mechanics in all of us that keep us alive), but I hate to see any life form in pain. But this was just a big, mindless, evil fish. Why should it bother me? WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Sharks are just eating machines that would tear me apart if they had half a chance, right? Who cares if one is being beaten to death? WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! But bother me it did. Then I looked in the shark’s eyes. I saw pain, I saw feeling and I knew what was going on was very, very wrong. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! The fishermen looked as if they were having fun. They even took turns. It seemed to go on forever. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Finally it stopped. The shark was dead or at least they said it was. To this day I hope they were right, but I don’t know for sure looking back on it now. It was a pitiful way for something to die. Slow, painful and brutal. Then the fisherman began to carve it up. As I said before, blood and guts don’t bother me if something is dead so this was no big deal. In fact, I was glad that the meat was going to be used. I thought if it was going to die at least the meat would be eaten and it wouldn’t have died for nothing. I watched this process continue for a while and that’s when I saw something I never expected to see. Babies. The shark was pregnant. The partially developed sharks began to pour out. The fisherman began to laugh and brag about how they had just kept a lot of other sharks from roaming the ocean. I watched as the babies were tossed into the surf and taken back out to sea. Suddenly this mindless eating machine became a mother to me. A pregnant mother who had been bludgeoned to death while I watched. I felt sick. I was ashamed of myself for being so thrilled before and during the catch. My attitude that morning made me as guilty as the fisherman themselves. I wanted to see them catch a shark. I wanted to see them reel it in. Now, I wished I had never seen those fishermen who had sunk from heroes to cruel bullies in my mind. (Even now I don’t understand how killing a defenseless animal while never putting yourself in any danger is considered manly. Seems more like what a bully who beats up women or children would do. Swim out to an 11 ft. lemon shark and with your bare hands wrestle it back to the beach. Then maybe I’ll be impressed.) Then it got worse.
After the shark had been carved up I learned how the meat was to be used. It was to be used for bait. They took one of the chunks of the shark, put it on a hook and headed back out to sea in the raft. Luckily, they didn’t have any more hits on their lines. They were out the next day trying again, but were unsuccessful. The shark was discarded on the beach. All the meat that had been carved off the shark was just strewn around the bottom of the dunes and around the mangled body of the shark. The fins were all cut off and had been held up as trophies the day before by the fishermen. I went back and looked at what was left of that shark. I looked in its eyes again, now lifeless. I looked at what was once a beautiful animal that had been beaten to death, craved up and left as trash. Then I looked out at the ocean. It looked different to me now. It wasn’t a playground anymore. It wasn’t a vast jungle for us to tame and conquer. It was something to be respected. It was something to appreciate and learn from. It was somebody’s home. Who was I to pass judgment on the creatures that lived there? How do I know how smart they are? How do I know what they are thinking and feeling? I thought I knew so much about the ocean, but I came to the realization that I didn’t really know squat. I had a whole new appreciation for the ocean and all those that call it home. I respected it before, but now that respect had gone to a different level. As we continue to devastate our oceans and the creatures that live there I hope people around the world will develop the respect for it that I now have. When people speak about how the ocean is so vast we could never over fish it, I try not to judge as I remember myself on that beach pulling for those fisherman to reel in that shark. However, I also hope they come to the same conclusion that I did when I realized how little I actually knew. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squeezed out. We are squeezing the life out of the oceans every day and if we don’t change our ways soon we will have just have any empty blue tube left over. I don’t know what it will take for people to realize this, but for me it was an 11 ft. Lemon shark on the beach at Edisto.
May 20, 2012