You’ve heard that curiosity killed a cat. Well, curiosity almost killed a Karen.
We were minding our own business, standup paddle-boarding just beyond the surf in Carpinteria, when my husband and I started seeing lots of dark kelp pieces beneath the water’s surface. At least that’s what we assumed they were. But the kelp chunks were moving independently of the current. They were alive in a more ambulatory sense than kelp. They were, in fact, dozens and dozens of leopard sharks.
My fear and fascination arose in equal measures. Mostly I wanted out of there, but as I simultaneously peered and paddled, I neglected to watch the surf. I was clobbered by a small wave and dumped into the water. The realization shocked me so much I literally leapt back onto my board.
You could say I have a love-hate relationship with sharks, but the love part is limited to their importance in the health of the Pacific ecosystem. Leopard sharks are harmless to humans, feeding mainly on clams, worms, crabs and shrimp. That is comforting, since their population at the salt marsh outlet seems to be seriously healthy.
I’ve always enjoyed swimming in the surf, but I’d never thought much about sharks until the last few years. One reason they’re more on my mind is my new interest in paddle-boarding. The standing position offers a perfect vantage from which to view all the living creatures of which I was previously blissfully ignorant.
Plus, I’ve heard the rumor that white sharks are making a comeback along our shores. Perhaps we can blame the improving health of the ecosystem. Protecting the Carpinteria seal rookery from people may be bringing back seal predators. White sharks love seals, but they’re also implicated in 87 percent of the unprovoked shark attacks on humans.
It’s hard to think of white sharks as victims, but a shark lecture in Carpinteria convinced me otherwise. Shark fin soup is an Asian delicacy, resulting in high prices for shark fishers worldwide. But the shark fins contain high levels of a potent neurotoxin that scientists have linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Moreover, when sharks are finned and tossed overboard, their bodies turn to ammonia that kills the reef below.
Fortunately for sharks and humans, interest in shark protection is growing. Seafood connoisseurs are beginning to think about environmental factors when choosing delicacies. But that doesn’t alleviate my concern in the water.
When I’m frightened of something, I turn to facts to convince myself that the odds of becoming a victim are low. This works very well with shark attacks. Fifty years ago, a man named Ralph Collier founded the nonprofit group Shark Research Committee. Its primary objective is to conduct original research on the general biology, behavior and ecology of Pacific Coast sharks. Collier spoke recently in Carpinteria to a standing-room-only crowd.
In my paddle-boarding since, I’ve depended on a couple of factoids from the talk:
» 1) There were only 108 documented shark attacks on the U.S. Pacific Coast in the entire 20th century. Pretty low odds!
» 2) Of those 108 attacks, none were perpetrated on surfers (or paddle-boarders) in their 50s. The researchers say this is just because not many 50-somethings are surfing, but I choose to believe sharks do not care for aging flesh.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.