A Fin Slapping Finale

Our incredible day out on the water was coming to an end. I didn’t want to go back into port. I wanted to stay out there forever. We had seen so many animals; a mola mola sunfish, multiple whales, and some white sharks! I was really just being greedy at this point, but I couldn’t help it. Now that I had seen these amazing animals, all I wanted was to see more.

Like all good things though, this day had to come to an end. So we got ready to head back to Plymouth. But the ocean had other plans for us.

Off in the distance, something exciting was happening. A humpback whale was fin slapping, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, the whale was lifting its pectoral fin out of the water and slapping it back down, creating a splash. That splash is what caught the attention of Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the Senior Biologist and Executive Director for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American Office, and the woman leading the whale watching portion of our trip. She excitedly told us that this was very interesting behavior, and worth checking out. So our Captain changed direction and we headed away from shore, out towards the whale.

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Once again the boat’s railings were lined with people, standing elbow to elbow, cameras out, waiting to see what this whale would do. And that could be anything, including stopping, according to Regina. As is the case with many of the ocean animals that scientists attempt to study, there is a lot we just don’t know about them. There are many possible theories that explain why whales do this, but they are theories. Even if we had known exactly what the whale was doing and why, who’s to say it would still be doing it by the time we got to it.

Anticipation hung in the air. The whale could stop at any minute. It could dive and swim off, and then we’d have to turn around and once again begin our trip home, a little disappointed because we were so close to being able to see something like this up close.

We were not disappointed. As we approached the humpback whale it continued to raise and drop its flipper, swimming on its side in a small circle. Then it turned and went the other way. It almost appeared to be showing off.

As soon as we began to think this was all the whale was going to do, and believe me, it was more than enough, the whale breached. The boat erupted in “awes” and cheers. All around me people were excitedly talking about the breach.

Photo by Wayne Davis

Photo by Wayne Davis

Most of us had never seen something like that before. Just to be that close to an animal of that size and majesty was humbling. To see it breach, was thrilling. And then, as if it really was showing off for the cheering crowd, the whale breached again. It seemed almost too incredible to be real. It was a beyond perfect end to such an amazing day. We could go back now.

Purple Smudge

The voice of the spotter pilot, Wayne Davis, crackled over the speakers of the boat. He could see the shark clearly from the air. Actually he could see a shark when it was within 18ft of the water’s surface. Which is pretty remarkable considering the murkiness of the waters off Cape Cod.

Looking down all I could see was the shadow of our boat on the opaque water. Earlier we had been able to see plankton, ethereally moving through the water, glowing blue. Now though, nothing. It was like trying to look through something solid. No matter how hard I strained my eyes, all I saw was green.

Wayne followed the shark, circling up in the clouds. He told the Captain exactly where to move the boat, telling him which direction to turn towards, how many boat lengths forward to go, and when to stop. The Captain followed his lead, expertly maneuvering the whale watching boat through the shallow water.

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We were only 50 ft from shore, and according to Wayne, we were in the right spot. If we stayed put the shark would swim right by us. So we waited.

My heart raced. I leaned over the side of the boat, scanning the water below me for any signs of the shark. There were people all around me, lining the railings of the boat, waiting anxiously for the shark to appear.

Wayne’s voice had been replaced by that of scientist Megan Winton. She stood on the bow of the boat, sharing shark facts with us, waiting like the rest of us for the shark to come into view. And then it did. We couldn’t see it yet, but Megan could.

She called out the white shark’s movements like a sports announcer would an exciting play. I hung onto her every word, hoping the next one would mean that shark was near me. The closer it got to the boat the more excited I became.

The shark was very close now. It was coming from the left side of the boat and was going to swim right across the bow. Any minute we would all be able to see it. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the left side of the boat. They could see the shark.

I fought the urge to run to the other side of the boat, to push my way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the shark. It was coming my way. I just had to be patient, to wait just a few minutes longer, minutes that felt like hours

Photo by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Photo by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Then the people around me began to yell and point. I followed their fingers and there it was. A shadow moving through the water. “It looks like a purple smudge” Megan had told us, and she was right. As the shark swam by its outline became a little clearer. I could even make out its dorsal fin.

I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a white shark. It was incredible.

Photo by Lisa Hughes

Photo by Lisa Hughes

The Wonder Years

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“I need the sea because it teaches me,
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
if it’s a single wave or its vast existence,
or only its harsh voice or its shining
suggestion of fishes and ships.
The fact is that until I fall asleep,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.”
~Pablo Neruda, “The Sea”

I don’t remember a time when I did not have this curious love for sharks.

What I do remember is Saturday mornings tucked into my Dad’s side watching nature specials on the couch. I remember paging through his college science books, with illustrations of great white sharks (comically/tragically) labeled as “Maneater.” I remember visiting The Living Seas restaurant at Disney World when I was six, staring rapt at the glass and the creatures gliding by like aliens from another planet, feeling deliciously terrified and besotted all at once.

Right through adolescence, any poster of Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1997 had to compete for wall space with my “World’s Most Dangerous Sharks” chart. My friends thought it was super weird. I really didn’t care.

Now that I’m a mother, and raising a child who is fortunate enough to live a block from the ocean, I realize how important it is to me to pass along to my son this love of the sea, and respect for all of its inhabitants and the delicate but vital role each creature plays in the great drama of the ocean’s ecosystem.

I brought home my sweet new baby to a nursery decked out in an ocean theme: happy orange fish curtains, a reproduction London Aquarium poster from the 1930s, and books, books, books about the marine world.

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And we’ve gone on from there. My son loves to walk to the beach at the end of the street and tell me which shells belong to mussels, and which to the razor clams. He loves to talk about whale sharks and basking sharks and which one is his favorite that day and why. He loves episodes of “Blue Planet” and reading Bob Shea’s “I’m a Shark!” and examining the shark dissection chart I have framed in our bathroom.

He wants nothing more than to share in this passion with me.

And that’s heady stuff. I feel the power and responsibility of that every day. I have so much influence on him; more than any media, or peer, or even teacher could ever hope to have. I try to take that seriously. For a very brief window of his life, I am all-knowing and wise. If I teach him that sharks are beautiful and mysterious, to be respected and protected instead of feared, he will believe me.

So we take trips to the aquarium, and get down on our knees to peer into tidal pools, and get our sleeves very wet in either scenario. I am savoring this shared interest of ours, and storing it in my memory for when he’s fifteen and I’m so annoying he can’t even stand it.

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Now I don’t want to dictate my child’s interests anymore than I want anyone else to try and dictate my own. There will be no crazed ichthyology-themed stage parenting in our house. If my enthusiasm for sharks becomes cringe-inducing for him at some point (as most things beloved of parents are for their children) well, then I’ll take it down a notch when his friends come over.

Unless he’s rude about it. Then I’m totally trotting out the baby photos where he’s wearing nothing but a shark hat and a smile.

He doesn’t have to don scuba gear and plan for Woods Hole for me to be proud of him. I can’t wait to see what will excite him as he ages. What will light him up, and put that sparkle in his eye. I don’t care what gets his motor running, as long as it runs—loud and strong and takes him somewhere fantastic.

But what I do want, desperately and without agenda, is to instill in him a sense of awe at this amazing planet, to encourage and prolong that sense of wonder at the world that is such an essential part of childhood. A wonder that I still feel at age thirty one, whenever I stand before a salty body of water.

I want him to look out at the sea and the fin in the water and marvel at its majesty.

I want there to be fins left to marvel at.

And I want to marvel with him.

7 Reasons Why You Need a Massachusetts Great White Shark License Plate

Atlantic White Shark Conservancy license plate

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is starting a 60-day campaign to presell speciality Massachusetts license plates that feature a painting of a great white shark. They’re only $40 dollars, and they’re available to all Massachusetts residents. If you didn’t immediately realize what a jawesome opportunity this is, there are some good reasons why you need a white shark license plate:

1. The plates make fishing decals look wimpy by comparison.

2. You can truly live every week like it’s Shark Week.

3. You’ll be able to scare any seals off the road.

This will probably only work if the seals are a few inches tall.

4. You’ll get the right to shout, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” into traffic.

If you really want to geek out, you’ll also get the right to cruise around town blasting the “Jaws” theme out your window.

5. You can show your pride in your state’s white sharks!

Massachusetts has seen an explosion of white sharks in recent years. What better way to represent the Bay State than to drive to work and the grocery store with everyone’s favorite apex predator by your bumper?

6. You’ll be supporting white shark research and education.

The funds raised from the plates go directly to supporting the AWSC’s mission. $28 from the fee is tax deductible, too!

7. Because… it’s a flippin’ great white shark.

What else can we say? They’re wicked awesome.

Sign up here for your plate now!

Wild Chatham!

Chatham resident and nature photographer, John King, donated forty limited-edition signed prints of his poster ‘Wild Chatham’ to AWSC. Anyone who donates $100 or more to the Conservancy will receive a poster (while supplies last). Funds will go toward our Summer Camp Scholarship Program. Please visit our website (www.atlanticwhiteshark.org) to make a donation. 

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Many thanks to John and Pam King for their generosity and support!

Atlantic White Shark Conservancy Summer Camp Scholarship Program

Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is pleased to offer scholarships for qualifying students to participate in summer camp programs that include a shark curriculum. Our goal is to connect a future generation to sharks through hands-on learning opportunities; inspiring the conservation of keystone species in our ocean’s ecosystem.

In 2013, we will be working with two amazing organizations on Cape Cod!

MASS AUDUBON – Wellfleet Bay and Chatham Natural History Day Camps

CAPE COD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY – KidSummer Natural History Day Programs in Brewster

One week of camp will cost up to $455 per child. Donations can be made by visiting our website: http://www.atlanticwhiteshark.org    Thank you for your support!Monique Simoneau

 

 

Whale Sharks

At Atlantic White Shark Conservancy we love all sharks! Last summer we had the privilege of spending two days with Rafael de la Para, swimming with whale sharks. Rafael has been instrumental in whale shark research in Mexico. Whale sharks are the largest living fish and can reach lengths of 40+ feet. One of the sharks we encountered, Lucy, was tagged shortly after our trip. Her tag popped off 4 days ago a few miles south of Galveston. Rafael let us know that the tag popped off where the Flower Garden Banks are, making her the first whale shark tagged in ‘Afuera’ Mexico to be documented to travel to the Flower Gardens Banks!