Of Sharks and Sailing Ships

 

Sunday, January 5. 2007

Florida, Fort Lauderdale, Los Olas Boulevard, The Floridian Diner

I have been in Florida since Thursday night. Friday morning, actually, as I wasn’t able to pick up bags until after midnight. The plane was early, the baggage late…explainable by quantum physics, but not by the overworked airline employee left to explain the situation to a surly crowd of tired travelers. My ride appeared curbside at nearly 1am. A quick hug of recognition, toss the bags in the rear of the car and off to my new home for the next three months – a 38’ Irwin sloop named Chondros.

This morning I ran away from “home” for some brief privacy and to stretch my legs in a needed walk. The weather- typically Florida – was humid and warm with a nice breeze rustling the palm trees. The word soughing is more appropriate to the sound, but I believe it only applies to hardwood forests in nineteenth century English novels. You never heard Edward James Almos using the word soughing in Miami Vice, actually you didn’t hear him say too much at all…but definitely not soughing.

The breeze along my route – east along Broward Avenue -tosses up your typical big city Sunday morning litter – empty pizza boxes, beer bottles rolling in the gutter, a syringe, Saturday newspapers and flyers for all night massage parlors and a rave off of Revolution.  A few homeless men were stirring in the only green space I saw – a patch of grass and a few trees memorializing some fine citizen long forgotten and one who, most likely, never had to call a hard cement bench ‘home’.

Passing the ‘garden’, I tossed my emptied Dunkin Donuts coffee cup into a trash can overflowing with organic detritus that did not bear closer inspection with any of my senses. The coffee had been strong and extremely hot, keeping its heat for several blocks…and the overly large, sibilant Bahamian woman who served it would be staying in my memory for a long while, filed under Great Characters for The Movie I’m Going To Make One Day.

Now I am ensconced at an avenue-side table at the Floridian, the kind of twenty-four hour diner that defies political correctness and nutritional progress and thus thrives when other restaurants across the city are dying by the truckload. Frank, my overly friendly gay waiter has already given me his latest slice of life story along with lemoned water and coffee. He was late for work today and has gotten stuck with the street tables – lower tips because this is the destination of coffee-guzzling, cigarette smoking, non-eating people watchers…myself included (sans the smoking of course.)

January 31

So you might have noticed that a few days have elapsed since my first (and only) entry. If anyone tells you that time cannot be stopped, they have not sat on a sail boat in Florida ‘waiting’ for a weather window in which to safely cross the Gulf Stream. Time has stopped, albeit pleasantly. My days have been spent sleeping, reading, listening to Air America talk radio, long walks and, most importantly, provisioning the boat for the off chance that we might actually pull away from the dock within my life time.

With each Northern storm front that comes through, the odds of slipping into the outer Bahamas – the original plan – to dive with and study sharks becomes less and less real. My host, and skipper Dr. Mark Marks is considered one of the foremost authorities on white sharks and that is what has brought me here.

Marks is an interesting dichotomy.  Once a US Army Pathfinder, Marks’ blood runs red, white and blue with pride and loyalty for his fellow veterans, and yet, he is one of the most staunchly anti-war voices I have ever heard. Well read in US History –both military and political; with real life experience in one of America’s lesser known third world counter-insurgencies, Marks can opine intelligently on our current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he doesn’t suffer fools easily. No slacker myself on politics, our conversations have been stimulating, occasionally loud and very opinionated – on both sides. But when current events have been exhausted, talk turns to his first love, one that few people share or can even comprehend – Great White Sharks.

Unlike our landlocked great predators the grizzly, wolf and mountain lion, the Great White Shark’s fan club is quite small. No one is clamoring to place carcharidon carcarius on the Endangered Species List. No marketing maven has distributed posters of cuddly baby whites. No pin-striped lobbyists are plying the US Congress for monies to buy ‘roadless oceanic wilderness’ in which the sharks can roam unmolested. And although they exist, the non-profits dedicated to shark preservation are few and relatively lackluster in positive achievements.

But this lack of public awareness doesn’t deter Marks. His twenty-five year behavioral study of ‘his whites’ has uncovered – in his eyes at least –  a predator no less ‘loveable’ than the warm and furry earth-based relations that the rest of the world either loves or reviles. And like the biologists and researchers that roam our Rocky Mountains studying the great furred predators, Marks roams the oceans following and observing his chosen muse -without the benefit of a shark cage. And as Frost wrote ‘this has made all the difference.”

Marks received his PhD as a cognitive behavioral zoologist from the University of South Africa in Cape Town. The first degree of its kind to focus on what most believe to be a non-senescent, solitary ‘eating machine’, Marks’ hours in the water with Whitey has proven – to himself and a few others- that great whites are as communicative, communal, and aware of social status and boundaries as the more studied terrestrial – canine lobo [sic]or the timber wolf.

Hundreds of hours under water in what could be considered the most controlled uncontrolled natural environment possible – the rich waters of Dyer Island off Cape Horn – has allowed Marks the rare opportunity to study the same group of whites for several years. Such dedicated focus has resulted in the ‘discovery’ that sharks travel in loose aggregate groups; communicate with each other in a body language both overt and beautifully subtle; show self awareness; and, are in fact quite intelligent, not the stupid robots that mistake humans for seals  – a portrayal all too common in our media.

Whether or not the weather ever cooperates, this trip with Dr. Marks in his floating classroom has changed the way I view my world – a world made all the richer with the presence of sharks and sailing ships.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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