June 27, 2008

Shark Bait!

Posted: 03:18 PM ET

I remember the moment I fell in love with marine animals. I was ten years old, visiting Sea World in San Diego with my family, when I saw two scuba divers swimming in a tank of dolphins. That’s all it took.

Waving to aquarium visitors through the glass at the Ocean Voyager exhibit.

Fast forward twelve years. A degree in marine biology and a few marine science internships later, I’m still that same 10 year-old redhead who gets giddy every time I see a scuba diver in an aquarium.

So imagine my excitement last week when I found out that I was going to scuba dive in the world’s largest aquarium with the world’s largest sharks.

Everyone jokes that they are going to throw their interns to the sharks, but the CNN Science and Technology producers weren’t kidding.

Turns out the Georgia Aquarium had offered me a once in a lifetime chance to swim with whale sharks, rays, and the thousands of other fish in their football field sized Ocean Voyager tank. It’s all part of their new Swim With Gentle Giants program that lets the public scuba dive with these majestic animals one half hour at a time.

I couldn’t pull on my wetsuit on fast enough. Before I climbed down the ladder into the 6.3 million gallon tank, people kept asking me if I was scared of what I was about to do.

Truth was, I was more nervous that I wasn’t going to remember how to scuba dive than to look blacktip reef sharks in the eye.

A summer of volunteering at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans taught me that most sharks are the not frightening animals as the movie Jaws would lead us to believe. No need to insert the movie’s theme song here…

Sharks have very slow metabolisms so they don’t need to eat often. Like baleen whales, whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning they would be more interested in plankton than me. I wasn’t even frightened of the other sharks in the tank. Thanks to a hardworking aquarium team, they are fed regularly enough to keep their stomachs happy and most of them don’t find the taste of humans appealing anyway.

One of the Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks swims gently by divers.

So there I was, swimming through schools of French grunts, kneeling next to cownose rays, and coming face to face with giant grouper. All the while, the white underbellies of the four juvenile whale sharks slid silently by above our heads. It was only after the hammerhead shark came within one foot of me that I remembered I was trespassing on their turf. But they didn’t seem to mind.

Millions of people visit the Georgia Aquarium each year, and, like me, this will the closest they will ever come to whale sharks in their lives. And that’s exactly what the aquarium wants.

These four whale sharks are ambassadors for their species. Gently swimming through their giant aquarium habitat everyday, they are not only educating the public on the beauty of their species but also the threats to their population. Like most shark species, whale shark populations in the wild are a fraction of their historic levels.

So the next time you get nervous about swimming in the ocean because you think sharks may be roaming in the deep blue water, remember they are treasures of nature not monsters of the deep.

And if you have trouble getting over your fear of sharks, memorize this fact I read in a GA Aquarium pamphlet after my dive: ‘According to a National Geographic article on shark conservation, New Yorkers bite more people each year than sharks do.’

Happy swimming everyone.

(Note to my producers: you can throw me to these sharks any day).

For more information on the Ocean Voyager exhibit and the Swim With Gentle Giants program, please visit Georgia Aquarium website at

- Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • Oceans • Sharks

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February 26, 2008

Sharks and Suits

Posted: 01:31 PM ET

Two very different environmental stories are out there today: A fatal shark attack off the Bahamas, and the U.S. Supreme Court's hearing of arguments in the Exxon Valdez lawsuit.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the release of the 2007 worldwide death toll for shark attacks on humans: One person died in a shark attack last year, a vacationing French diver in the South Pacific. We discussed the media's fascination with sharks, despite the rare rate of fatalities. More people are killed each year by snakes, deer collisions, or falling vending machines than by sharks. There were some great reader responses, too - although a few folks took a political turn, questioning my use of the title "Swift-Boating the Sharks."

On Monday, an Austrian attorney and dive enthusiast was fatally injured as he participated in a "swim with the sharks" expedition. The Florida-based excursion boat had traveled to Bahamian waters, where the crew allegedly chummed the water to attract sharks. Such activities are illegal in Florida waters. This tragedy is sure to raise more debate about such expeditions, and about our relationship to these fascinating, potentially dangerous creatures.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to hear arguments Wednesday on a $2.5 billion punitive judgment against Exxon for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 1994, a jury found Exxon and Joseph Hazelwood, the ship's Captain, guilty of recklessness, awarding $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages. While an appeals court later cut the punitive damages in half, it remains as one of the biggest such judgments ever. Exxon is asking the high court to wipe out the rest of the punitive judgment - saying Exxon's already spent over $3 billion in fines and cleanup costs related to the spill. But the plaintiffs - 33,000 fishermen, business and land owners, Native Alaskans, and communities – – hope to see the verdict upheld.

Quite a few things have changed in the nineteen years since the spill: Exxon is now Exxon/Mobil; nearly 20% of the original 33,000 plaintiffs have died without seeing a final decision in the case. For his part, Captain Hazelwood has kept a low profile. During the 1990's he worked for a time as a paralegal in the law office that handled his case. He also worked at the SUNY Maritime College on his native Long Island - as a safety instructor aboard the college's training ship.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: Animal attacks • environment • oil spills • Sharks

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February 13, 2008

Swift-Boating the Sharks

Posted: 12:47 PM ET

There’s a sad irony in the news today, following this week’s death of Roy Scheider, the shark-hunting cop from the Jaws movies.  The International Shark Attack File, the unofficial scorekeeper on worldwide shark attacks on humans, published its death toll for the year 2007.


All of the sharks in all the world’s oceans barely kept pace with Mr. Scheider’s movie accomplishments.  They killed one of us last year.  One.

Certainly that one death is no laughing matter.  She was a vacationing nurse, snorkeling in the waters off New Caledonia in the South Pacific.  There were also 71 reported shark attacks that did not result in a human death last year.

George Burgess, the University of Florida researcher who runs ISAF, performs the grim task of counting up the incidents.  But he does so with his own sense of irony.  Popular culture, he says – from the big screen to magazine cover stories to cable news channels (!) – have pumped up the drama of shark attacks, in the process creating the impression that they’re far more common than they truly are.

Burgess’s numbers, as well as a few pulled from other studies, put the shark frenzy in context:

- From 2000 to 2005, ISAF reports there were eight domestic shark attack deaths.  The International Hunter Education Association reports that 385 U.S. and Canadian hunters were accidentally killed by other hunters in that same time frame.

- The New England Journal of Medicine reported that from 1990 to 2006, there were 16 deaths on American beaches caused by digging sandholes till the sand collapsed, smothering the digger.  ISAF counted a dozen U.S. shark deaths in the same period.  Clearly, you’d be safer in the water, with the sharks, than you are in your own sandhole.

- Florida is the most prolific state for both boating and shark attacks.  Over a two-decade period, the U.S. Coast Guard reported 764 boating-accident deaths in the state.  The sharks took four lives in the same years.

- A decade ago, a Consumer Product Safety Commission report tracked vending machine deaths from 1977 till 1995, thirty seven Americans were killed when they got overly aggressive, toppling a vending machine to get a reluctant quarter or cola – an average of about two per year, or twice the number killed by sharks in the US.  Just when you thought it was safe to get a Dr. Pepper ...

n      Deer – the very symbol of the terrors of nature – take between 130 and 140 human lives each year – usually just after they’re in your headlights.  The CDC estimates an average of fifteen U.S. deaths per year from snakebites.  But the all-time champion animal nemesis for the human race doesn’t have a scorekeeper, and will likely never get its own series of movies or saturation news coverage.  We don’t know for certain how many people are killed by mosquito-borne disease but the horrible toll easily reaches the millions each year. 

Roy Scheider’s immortal line from the first Jaws movie was, upon first seeing his Great White enemy, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  But in the world’s eye, the sharks are getting Swift-Boated.  And we’re not working very hard to find the Real Killers.

- Peter Dykstra,  executive producer, Sci-Tech

Filed under: Animal attacks • Sharks

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