The letter from
the University of Wisconsin medical school was emphatic. If we didn't ship the
shark blood by Sept. 8, we had better forget it. And $400 for a gallon of blood
was good and much needed money. We had tried to fill the order over the past
few weeks and I was getting more and more discouraged because we were catching
only small sharks of mixed species, which did not fill the requirements. When I
figured up all our time and expenses, I was beginning to wonder if we would
break even—if and when we succeeded. We tried to leave jugs attached to baited
lines off a sandbar while we were tideflat collecting, but it never worked.
Over the years I
have found sharks to be a losing or at best a break-even proposition, although
I could never turn down an order for one because of the thrill involved in
catching and handling them. I'll never forget the order for a pound of shark
brains; I sat there ripping open the frozen heads of blacktip sharks and
scooping out the tiny amount of soft matter. It took more than 10 sharks of
assorted sizes to fill the order. Then there was the order for 20 pounds of
shark liver, which would have been easy to fill and highly profitable in July
or August, but the order came in February, when no sharks were to be found
anywhere. Nevertheless, we spent hours fishing for them in deep water, hoping a
big stray would be around. We lost the order.
Once in a while
we won one, though. The National Institutes of Health wanted 100 pounds of
hammerhead shark skin and fins, and we happened to meet a fisherman who had
found a 15-footer entangled in his net. The shark had ripped and twisted the
300-yard gill net before drowning, and the fisherman triumphantly beached it
not more than a mile from my dock. I squatted in the boiling August sun, sawing
away and skinning the monster while a mob of people gathered round to ask what
I was doing and why. By the time all the fins and the two elongated sides of
the hammerhead's hammer were sawed off and large sections of skin were piled
up, I was sweaty, reeking of shark and exhausted, but I had my 100 pounds of
skin and could have saved another 100 pounds if I'd needed it.
profits were made by selling $300 worth of hammerhead to N.I.H. were probably
lost when we went out for 40 pounds of shark cartilage. Who would have thought
it takes four six-foot sharks to fill an order like that? A shark is supposed
to be all cartilage and muscle, but the cartilage is less than 10% of its total
weight. Sometimes you can fish all day and not catch a single shark, and the
next time the water is teeming with them. It takes time and labor, tank after
tank of gasoline, a lot of rigged lines, fresh bait and your undivided
attention, and still there is no guarantee you'll get the right shark.
So why didn't I
write to the University of Wisconsin and say we could no longer afford to ship
sharks or shark products? I suppose it was because I am enthralled by them. I
love their sleek form and beauty, the way they move majestically through the
water. Now and then we would bring a shark back and put it in our tank, and
there was no fish that could compare with it. So little is known about sharks,
even though there are laboratories working on their behavior and physiology.
There is an innate fascination about them, compounded of respect and fear. And
in this day and age, when man with his bulldozers is pushing back the forests,
draining the swamps and endangering a number of species, it is good to think
there may be one species that he will never destroy.
I have taken
tiger sharks, lemon sharks, bull sharks, hammerheads and blacktips from the
estuaries and waters of Florida. I have netted small sharks in gill nets and
have on rare occasions supplied them alive to large public aquariums. It has
always amazed me how fragile a shark really is, how easily life slips from its
body, especially when you want one to live.
I recall the many
hours I have spent walking freshly caught sharks around our tanks, so that the
oxygen and water can pass through the gills, and then at last there is that
spasmodic jerk, a swish of a fin, and the shark begins to swim. It swims a few
feet and then sinks to the bottom, and we start walking it again, and again,
until finally the shark is able to swim under its own power and moves freely
around the tank. But in all likelihood the next morning it will be lying belly
up on the bottom of the tank.
It is almost as
if sharks weren't meant to be held in captivity and beheld by man in a tank. A
shark has no bone, just cartilage, and if you handle one roughly, you can cause
internal hemorrhaging and dislocate its soft tissues.
On the hot August
day my assistants, Leon and Edward, and I went out for the University of
Wisconsin's shark blood, the sea was mirror calm and we could see for miles as
we raced across the surface, skimming it, shattering it with our wake. We had
the old outboard tunnel boat all prepared for shark fishing. Not only was it
filled with bloody bait, hooks, lines, anchors and jugs, but we also had
Styrofoam chests filled with ice and gallon jars containing tiny bottles of
heparin, which would be used to keep the blood from clotting. That was
important because shark blood clots easily. The med school insisted that the
blood cells be evenly distributed throughout the plasma: it didn't want one big
ugly clump of cells.
We didn't have to
run very far before reaching excellent shark-fishing waters. They could even
have been called "shark-infested waters," but that definition I find a
little vague, because any body of seawater on this planet, except the Antarctic
Ocean, is "shark-infested" in certain seasons. Along the far end of the
Panacea Channel off Florida's northern Gulf Coast, where the water was deeper
and the current was swifter, the largest number of sharks could be chummed up
in the shortest possible time.