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Fins to the left, and FINS to the RIGHT!

By: John Chandler

Date Posted: 2001-09-15

SHARK! With deep regret it appears that this summer is going to be remembered as the summer of the Shark on the East Coast of the United States. While this real-life “Jaws” saga is being viewed on TVs world-wide there may be a few things for us to ponder.

May I start by telling you that I am not a marine biologist. Also, I am not an ichthyologist (shark expert). I am just an underwater photographer who used to live in the exact places where all of these attacks are occurring. Just like you, I have been reading and listening with great interest to what the "experts" are saying. So what you are about to read is a summary of what I am hearing mixed with my personal opinions. But most importantly may I express how deeply I feel for the pain that victims, and the families of the victims, are experiencing. May all of our prayers be with them.

Let's start with just a bit of history about this area of the world, it may help you understand what "may" be happening. Experts realize and report that two decades of over-fishing the sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard of the United States which began in the ‘70’s, almost decimated the shark population. After the popularity of the film JAWS swept the U.S. the unique flavor of the Mako, Bull, and White Tip Shark were seen on many a menu in the restaurant kingdom of Southern Florida. This coupled with the social permission to kill sharks in great numbers reduced shark sightings all along on the Eastern Seaboard for a period of about 20 years. But through the efforts of many these expansive "shark-kills” were stopped in the late ‘80’s. This allowed the populations of the ever-resilient shark to begin their rebound.

However, several other things were happening too. Over-fishing continued in the Gulf and on the Eastern Seaboard for everything else. This “everything else” is exactly what the shark, top predator in the food chain, feeds on. Also, the population explosion along the Eastern Seaboard has now placed more people than ever in the cool blue waters of the Gulf Coast and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream that bathes the Eastern Coast of the United States. So we now have fewer fish and more people, and a population of sharks that have been on the rebound all in these same waters.

Now you can begin to see through the murky waters and understand that we have, through over-fishing, taken away the staple food for sharks from the currents of the Gulf Stream and replaced it with lots of movement, splashing, and a newfound food source near shore. We are learning about the delicate balance of the underwater ecosystems on the East Coast, and I am sure that marine biologists and ichthyologists from Miami to Boston are working overtime even as I write this.

What does this entire story mean to divers on Okinawa. Divers are generally not in the Shark's food chain. Since we do not normally swim about on the surface, we do not present the silhouette that is favored by the shark. Remember these fish did not go to high school and do not know the difference between a turtle on the surface or a surfer resting on a boogie board waiting for the next swell. Also, you will be comforted to know that my experience and that of just about every other diver on Okinawa is that we seldom, and I mean almost never, see a shark in the waters surrounding Okinawa and the Kerama Islands. As a photographer I have had to travel to Midway, Australia, Yap and Palau to dependably photograph sharks. The only place on Okinawa where you can expect an infrequent encounter with a shark is near Bolo Point. That is probably because of the number of fishermen that frequent Zanpa Misaki every weekend.

Besides my intentional encounters with sharks the only other times that I can report to you that I ever had an unexpected meeting with Mr. Shark was while spear fishing in my youth. Since these encounters seemed to hasten me into middle age faster than I wanted I soon traded the spear gun for a camera. Since the camera does not make fish bleed it seems that sharks are not as interested in me as they used to be.

I hope these few words will comfort moms & dads here on Okinawa just a bit. I look for these wonderful animals almost every weekend and rarely do I get the opportunity to see them. The waters are safe here. Just watch out for the urchins. They are everywhere!

The “San Diego Charger Fish” first described by diver M.J. Pallotta because of its coloration and patterns, is really a Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus) and a member of the surgeonfish family. Often mistaken as a bannerfish, which looks very similar, the Moorish idol can be found on almost every reef around Okinawa. It enjoys schooling in patterns that are reminiscent of shower curtain scenes you enjoyed so much as a child. Knowing more about the underwater world means enjoying it more!

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