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Friday, May 11, 2007


Well, I have to admit that the only tiger shark I actually saw was one a local fisherman caught off the pier-- and it was about 18" long, maybe two feet. He used it to try to scare children before throwing it back in. I'll get to my tiger shark adventure in a moment. I had come to St. Simons, an island off the south Georgia coast, for a conference. As is my habit, I arrived a day early so I could get the lay of the land. I'm glad I did. It's a beautiful, sleepy resorty kind of place; very quiet and relaxing.

I flew from L.A. on Delta, a crappy airline that had just come out of bankruptcy that day and insisted we all applaud and drink some champagne. I did neither. There was a layover in Atlanta before I got a plane to Jacksonville, Florida's cozy little airport-- which boasts free internet, something I tried using several times coming and going... to no avail. (I had only been to Jacksonville once before, a stopover on a Greyhound when I was 13 years old and lost my virginity among some huge tires to an older woman; she must have been 17 or 18 and seemed to know what to do. I certainly didn't.) Nothing like that happened at the airport. Instead my friends picked me up and drove me north over a series of causeways to lovely St. Simons. We drove straight to a random restaurant, Mullet Bay. It blew.

Southern food isn't exactly my cup of tea, as Ken pointed out at DWT after I called him from the island to complain about Mullet Bay. Everything was fried and a deadly serious homage to cholesterol. Even at the estate, where the food was more... contemporary, our hostess had to intervene forcefully with the purist staff about serving collard greens without the ham hocks for the two dozen vegetarians in the crowd.

I stayed at the SeaPalms Resort, far from the beach, kind of in the middle of nowhere unless you're there for the golfing. It was OK, although internet connectivity isn't one of the amenities that works well; expensive but non-fuctional. The room was... roomy and quiet, so I won't complain. The breakfast buffet was... generous-- if life threatening.

I was excited to go kayaking. And I didn't let the fact that I ignored instructions to bring a bathing suit stop me. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to leave my cell phone, wallet and valuables back at the hotel. The beach was gorgeous-- and filled with eye candy-- and the water is warm, far warmer than the Pacific, even warmer than my pool! I soon learned that ocean kayaking isn't like white water kayaking (which I've done before). I think what threw me was when the kayak renter casually mentioned not to go out over the sandbar because, he claimed, it was the "biggest tiger shark breeding ground off the East Coast." My immediate thought was to go back to the hotel and read my book. But I was with 3 friends and they didn't take any notice at all. My second thought was to wonder if anyone had told the breeding tiger sharks to stay near their end of the sand bar.

That's what I was thinking, about 3 minutes into the adventure when I was hit by a 6 inch wave mid-ship; you're supposed to keep your nose pointed into the waves. I must have lost my balance because the next thing I knew I was man overboard. Do you think I panicked? I don't know what scares me more-- sharks or alligators, but when I saw several fins in the water I almost fainted. But that was over in 30 seconds when I realized it was a pod of dolphins. I convinced myself dolphins protect people from tiger sharks. My friend Matt, who fell in about half an hour later, went one further: dolphins eat tiger sharks. I never did check that out... but the dolphins did seem to stay between us and the ominous sandbar; maybe they hoped we were bait. Or maybe it's a spiritual thing; I hope so. I never eat canned tuna.

I didn't get bitten and the rest of the weekend was nice and peaceful, although there are alligators in the pond of the estate. I wound up in a party of two golf carts driving around the shore looking for them. Never did see any.


The Sunday NY Times has a travel story about people who don't inadvertently fall off plastic kayaks in a shark breeding ground like I did but who go out looking for them-- like I would never do. And Great Whites at that! It's beyond belief that people get in the water-- voluntarily-- with sharks. Even though only 50 or 60 people are attacked by sharks a year, I walk around my swimming pool every single morning to make sure there are no sharks (or alligators) in it before jumping in to do my laps. It's an indoor pool.

Joshua Hammer writes about his shark safari off the coast of Dyer Island, South Africa. Peter Benchley's Jaws had gotten to him, just like to the rest of us. "In the last 15 years, 'cage diving' has gone commercial. Thousands of tourists a year are now squeezing into wet suits and plunging into shark-infested waters off Australia and South Africa for an intimate look at the predators, which grow as long as 25 feet, can weigh more than a ton, and live between 30 and 50 years." Joshua was there in February, the height of tourist season but human tourists, not the peripatetic shark tourists (who come in late summer to munch down the Cape fur seal pups).

Already three people had given up and clambered out of the cold water and back onto the boat, named Shark Team, but I wasn’t ready to call it quits. I rubbed my hands together, and absent-mindedly wrapped my fingers around the front bars of the cage, prompting a warning from Grant Tuckett, our guide on this morning-long expedition, that I risked having them bitten off. Then, Mike Ledley, another crew member aboard the Shark Team, shouted out: “Shark! Get ready!”

I took a gulp of air and dropped below the surface, 12 pounds of lead weights strapped around my wet suit to counter my natural buoyancy. Feet wedged at the bottom of the cage, I pressed my mask against a face-wide aperture between the bars and waited for a monster to swim into view. The visibility in the water, which was thick with sand and algae blooms, was less than three feet. On the deck, the crew dragged ropes tied with fresh bait-- shark liver, chunks of yellowfin tuna-- around the boat, trying to lure the great white into proximity. “Here he comes,” Mr. Ledley yelled.

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