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Nature of the Unknown

by Ryan Deto

CHILDREN laugh as they slide down green plastic slides and swing on chain-link swing sets at the park sitting above Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach, California. Across a parking lot a stands the lifeguard office for the city of Solana Beach, which is perched on top of a twenty-foot-high cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the bottom of the cliff, dark, dirty sand spreads across two small coves separated by a concrete lookout point. Orange algae covers most of the dirty sand and clumps into piles near the shoreline. Sea gulls rest on top of the piles, seemingly unconcerned by the flies swarming over the dank algae. One- to two-foot swells pound into the sand, chasing a small child up a wood staircase to the comfort of his mother, while large, round pebbles roll in and out of the water with each incoming and outgoing wave. An elderly couple standing shoulder to shoulder look out over the ocean and shiver in the cool shorebound breeze. The sound of the waves crashing into the rocky cliffs, bubbling against the dark sand as they fall back again into the blue ocean seems to calm the visitors of Fletcher Cove. But on the morning of April 25, 2008, the serene atmosphere along the coast changed; less than half a mile north, a wide streak of blood crept up from the shoreline, extended onto the beach, and stained the dark, dirty sand red.

Cars pulled into the Fletcher Cove parking lot around 6:30 a.m. on that Friday morning almost a year ago. Ken and Anita Flagg arrived a few minutes late to the weekly swim for the Triathlon Club of San Diego, but none of the triathletes seemed to mind. The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills to the east, casting a pinkish-orange light over the cove that extended to the ocean. The day was perfect: a cloudless sky and no wind. David Martin, a 66-year-old retired veterinarian, informed the group that his friend and fellow triathlete would not be joining them because this was the day he had to apply for U.S. citizenship. A newcomer, Laurene Booth, introduced herself to the regular eight: David, Ken, Anita, Alan, Diana, Bob, Ryan, and Andrew. By 6:50 a.m., with all the formalities exhausted, the swimmers entered the water on the concrete slope at bottom of Fletcher Cove; The Flaggs led the pack in, David Martin was in the middle of the pack and entered fourth, and Laurene Booth was right behind Martin. Each swimmer walked into the calm water until it was deep enough to stretch out and swim. The splashes started and increased as each swimmer began to plow through the sea; hands slapped against the water’s surface and feet churned up the waves behind them.

A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea’s rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her. Running within the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain. The fish turned toward the shore.

-Jaws, Peter Benchley

A black-tipped dorsal fin breaks the water’s surface, causing a small, silent wake to trail behind it. The 3-foot-long blacktip reef shark, with its signature sleek, silver body and small black patches on the tips of its pectoral and dorsal fins, glides up to its prospective meal effortlessly, opens its mouth and bites down, ripping flesh with every violent shake of its broad head. Fragments of squid fly out from the shark’s mouth and scatter into the tank, spreading their fishy aroma throughout the clear water of Shark Lagoon at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The other sharks in the tank begin to swim faster, bobbing up to the surface to see if their lunch is ready. A tail fin splashes at the surface as a brown, four-foot sandbar shark grabs its meal and drags it down to the depths of the tank to swallow it whole.

Two o’clock is feeding time for the sharks and rays of Shark Lagoon, and the animals in the tank know it. Kari Olson, a shark aquarist with light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and a brilliant smile, places her white tennis shoes onto a decontamination mat before trekking behind Shark Lagoon. She and her fellow feeders then position themselves at different posts around the tank, each with different types of dead fish for different sharks. The feeders, sporting comfortable cargo shorts and aquarium staff sweatshirts, use their grabbers to snatch a sharky lunch item and submerge it into the tank. The small, fast sharks, like the blacktip reef sharks, get cut-up squid and small, fish-like sardines. The larger, slower sharks, like the 9-foot nurse sharks, are fed mollusks and crustaceans. Each meal corresponds to the dietary needs and teeth of each fish. The larger sharks are bottom feeders and have grinding teeth to crush shells of their prey and then suck them down their throats. The small sharks are fish hunters and, like the blacktips, have serrated teeth and use violent head thrashes to carve up their prey. Visitors to the aquarium gather around the tank to witness the sharks’ grace and aggression while feeding. Children rest on their parents’ shoulders as the crowd sighs in awe with each bite.

Kari notices a piece of squid that has fallen to the bottom of the tank and uses a long net to retrieve it. The sharks in the tank, like many sharks in the wild, are picky eaters and each one eats only about 1% of its body weight per day. They are not, contrary to popular belief, indiscriminate eating machines. Sharks eat what they need to keep themselves going; too little food and they won’t have enough energy to get through the day, too much food and they will gain weight and lose the speed they require to hunt. Sharks like, and need, fatty foods; animals filled with loads of fat and covered in blubber. Not ones with lean muscle and bone.

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