SI Vault
Rick Telander
April 19, 1976
A plunge into a caldron of slowly stirred sea monsters—oozing eels, sharp-beaked turtles, nosy sharks—all eager for their next meal or morsel
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April 19, 1976

Biting The Hand That Feeds Them

A plunge into a caldron of slowly stirred sea monsters—oozing eels, sharp-beaked turtles, nosy sharks—all eager for their next meal or morsel

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Feeding sharks in captivity is by no means a safe job. Senior diver George Nally once had his side laid open by a tank shark. Bob Griffin received "maybe 35 bites" last year, and several small teeth are still embedded in his hands. But it was on his very first feeding as an employee that Griffin had his closest call.

"My parents were out there watching," he said. "I really didn't know what to expect, so I was just holding a mackerel in my hand and then this shark started circling me. He charged and grabbed me by the weight belt, and shook me all around the tank."

The sharp-beaked and hungry turtles can be hazardous, as can the moray eels, which occasionally slither out of their giant clamshells and ooze about like green crepe paper. "When two of them fight over territory, it's like something from a Japanese monster movie," Griffin said. Even the sluggish jewfish are to be feared. "One simply inhaled a 4�-foot shark once," said Lou Garibaldi. "Whenever we add new fish we just assume the animals in the tank will take their 20% to 30% off the top."

As in the sea, a survival system has evolved and is maintained through degrees of fear, hunger satiation and a defined pecking order. Myrtle the turtle "does what she wants," but everyone else, even the 10-foot nurse shark who once had to be removed on a stretcher after a confrontation with a turtle, watches his step. "When one of the fish has been nailed during the night, the tension is so strong the next morning even I can feel it," Griffin said.

The divers carry no weapons to protect themselves but take care to keep their charges calm and orderly. They dive punctually, avoid startling movements and try to make sure every animal gets its fair share of the food.

One thing they don't do anymore is serve herring. "That's when the sharks go berserk," Griffin said. "The last time I fed herring there were sharks hanging onto my wet suit and clinging to my hair."

The point here is that sharks, and other dangerous sea beasts, can be approached with a modicum of safety if one has a good understanding of their motivations and behavioral tendencies. "Cousteau said the only predictable thing about sharks is that they will act unpredictably," Lou Garibaldi noted. "But they have their reasons like any other animal. We just may not know all of the reasons."

For aquarium divers such as Bob Griffin and Toni Pollack the understanding of tank inhabitants reaches a more personal level. Just by observation they can tell if certain fish are feeling chipper or not, whether they are hungry or diseased or sexually aroused. The sharks are the toughest to read.

"We give names to some of the animals with outstanding personalities," Griffin said. "There's Morris the moray and, of course, my favorite, Myrtle. And in another tank we've got an electric eel named Zap and some time ago we had a sawfish called Black & Decker. But the sharks are different."

Ancient animals that have changed little with the passage of time, sharks react to basic stimuli, if little else. Bob Griffin's hands are scarred and discolored from punching them on the snouts or batting their emery-board tails to maintain order. To really get a point across, he will drop his regulator and bite them in a handy spot, generally a pectoral fin. He also bites the turtles. "They communicate by biting," he explained. "And so can I."

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