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Great White Sharks And The Thrill Of Unseen Nature

Marc Henauer

Last Thursday, boat captain Giancarlo Thomae — flying in a helicopter over the Aptos, Calif., coastline — spotted and photographed what he called a "once in a lifetime event." There were 15 great white sharks swimming within a quarter-mile radius of the grounded SS Palo Alto ("the cement ship") just offshore.

"In my 20-plus years at sea, I have never seen anything like this," Thomae noted to media.

The sighting occurred on an afternoon when hundreds of children took to the ocean at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos — near the cement ship and, thus, also near the spot where the sharks were swimming — as part of a junior lifeguard competition. The competition was immediately suspended until the next day, when scientists reported that the sharks were unaggressive juveniles who posed no threat to people in the surf zone.

That same Thursday — late in the morning, shortly before the sharks were sighted from the air — I stood on the shore at Seacliff State Beach, gazing at the cement ship with my husband and our two friends from nearby Santa Cruz. Seeking signs of the dolphins, sea lions and whales that frequent the area, we lingered but saw none of them, a surprise to my friends who know this beach well. The churning waters and excited noises caused by the junior lifeguards had spooked the animals, we figured.

Only the next day did we learn of the other likely reason for the marine mammals' absence, or at least their invisibility to us: the presence of the young great white sharks. Immediately, I felt (and still feel) a thrill to know that I was almost certainly close to animals who, as adults, are apex predators of the sea.

Sharks may be sensationalized in the news, especially when a string of bites occurs, as has been happening in North Carolina waters. Great white sharks are too rarely celebrated for their great age as a species (they evolved before the dinosaurs did), their intelligence and their long-distance migrations, though the Twitter account of @MaryLeeShark is helping to change that.

There's no reason for fear to swamp a scientific interest in sharks: Risks of dying from a shark bite are vanishingly small — certainly smaller than the risk of dying from a lightning strike, dog bite or bee sting.

In California, I was lucky enough to sight — in visits to Monterey Bay and Asilomar State Beach — a humpback whale, harbor porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, pelicans and cormorants. Yet one of the memories I will hold most dear is my (unaware) proximity to the magnificent great whites (who, according to news reports, continue to favor that Aptos beach).

This non-encounter with sharks has led me to reflect on how much of nature is unseen by us. I don't mean only because we're sometimes inattentive or distracted when on a beach, in the woods or outdoors at home.

Even when we take out the earbuds, silence our phones and hush our conversations, we won't come close to recognizing all the creatures (tiny and large) around us.

Our own lives are truly enveloped by those of other animals, our fellow travelers through life.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.