The Lure of Sharks The year was 1969 and Sea World was doing well. However, the management knew that for the park's success to continue repeat visitors needed to be offered something new. With this in mind, a small group got together to brainstorm ideas that might be developed into future exhibits. The topic of sharks came up, stimulating considerable discussion and interest.
At that time, aquariums and oceanariums on the East Coast of the United States had successful exhibits of large, nearshore sharks like lemons (Negaprion brevirostris), bulls (Carcharhinus leucas), sandbars (C. milberti), and sand tigers (Eugomphodus taurus). Such hardy sharks didn't occur on the West Coast, however. Moreover, there had been little success in the past with the open-water pelagic sharks common off our deepwater Pacific coast. It was decided that these pelagic species might have potential as exhibit animals, but research needed to be done to find out for sure. To this end, Sea World committed financial support for a modest shark research program.
As a rule, shark species living close to shore tend to adapt to life in an aquarium better than those that live in the almost limitless water of the open ocean. These nearshore sharks, however--which on the West Coast include leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata), horn sharks (Heterodontus francisci), and swell sharks (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum)--are all bottom dwellers: not what the average aquarium visitor comes up with when visualizing a shark. The animals that everyone thinks of as "sharks" are the pelagic species: blues (Prionace glauca), makos (Isurus oxyrhynchus), the occasional smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena), and, of course, "Jaws" itself, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)--to name the most common ones found off southern California.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, though, marine biologists knew little about keeping pelagic sharks in captivity. Every one that had been brought to an aquarium had soon died. Obviously, something was not being done quite right. Sea World decided that a research effort might lead to success with either the blue shark or the mako shark.
As the curator of fishes, I took on the responsibility of designing this challenging research program. Going about it logically, I reasoned that three somewhat independent problems had to be solved, and steps followed, if a shark was to be displayed successfully in an aquarium. The first problem is the actual capture of the animal; second is the method used to transport the shark to the aquarium; and third is the design of the tank where the shark will live. Although these problems are somewhat independent, they are also linked. And of the three, the third is perhaps the most telling. For obviously, if you don't have a suitable holding tank ready for the shark to live in, you won't know if the first two steps were done right.
With no prior experience to help me out, I made my best guess and designed a relatively inexpensive, behind-the-scenes tank that I hoped would meet the needs of a pelagic creature like the blue shark. Trying to think like a shark--which is not easy, I found out--I reasoned that because blue sharks are rarely found near shore, they may be able to sense when they are approaching shallow water. They probably don't like sharp corners, since none exist in their watery world, and, because they swim constantly, they would most likely do best in as large a tank as possible. With those parameters in mind I designed a circular tank with a bottom that sloped up, becoming shallower toward the outer perimeter. Its size, fifty feet in diameter, was limited by how much money was available for the whole project. Bigger would obviously have been better, but you work with what you can get.
While the tank was under construction, we experimented with capture and transport methods. I had fished for blue sharks with rod and reel before from my own boat and knew from experience that they have a keen sense of smell and good vision. Our method of finding them was to take advantage of that sense of smell and allow them to find us. A fifty-pound burlap sack of ground mackerel was towed slowly behind the boat for half a mile or so, leaving a trail of odor that would smell like lunch to an almost-always-hungry blue shark.
For transport, we had a seven-feet-long-by-two-feet-wide plastic- lined tank made. It was restricted in size--but, I hoped, not too tight--because we were working out of a small, but fast, eighteen-foot outboard that didn't have much room or weight-carrying capacity. Knowing that the blue shark normally swims constantly in order to pass water over its gills, I made a flattened plastic mouthpiece that fit inside the animal's mouth. The mouthpiece had five holes on each side that theoretically lined up with the five gill slits of the shark. Through this device, water supersaturated with pure oxygen was pumped by a small submersible pump sitting in the narrow transport tank.
Surprisingly, this improvised low-tech system worked and the blue sharks we practiced with were as lively as could be. We'd capture them and hold them in the long, narrow tank on board--facetiously nicknamed the "shark coffin"--for a couple of hours and then release them. We found, too, that they became quite docile and relaxed when held upside down and became active again when righted, and on being released they would take off swimming just like a normal, healthy shark.
The behind-the-scenes holding tank at Sea World was finally ready and the water system turned on. Now came our chance to see how well a blue shark would do. "Gator" Bill Ervin and I went out a couple of miles off Mission Bay (where Sea World is located), laid our chum line of delicious mackerel juice, and waited. Pretty soon a six-foot shark showed up off the stern. Using a heavy nylon hand line, I tossed out the baited, barbless hook attached to a short wire leader. The shark quickly took the bait, and I instantly realized, as it nearly pulled me overboard, that this was no blue shark but most likely a much stronger mako. After finally getting it alongside our boat, Bill and I had an awful time lifting the heavy and uncooperative shark into the boat. Once it was lying upside down in the transport box, with the mouthpiece in place and the oxygen pump running, we took off for Sea World. I noticed that this particular shark repeatedly bit down on the mouthpiece, something I hadn't seen with the sharks we'd practiced with.
Hoisting the "shark coffin" off the boat and driving it the hundred yards to the waiting shark tank, we released the shark and it swam vigorously off. The transport method seemed to have worked fine. The shark looked good as it cruised around the fifty-foot tank.
We spent the next eight days trying to get the shark to take food. It refused everything we offered. Only once, when we poured a bucket of mackerel blood into the water directly ahead of it, did it show any response; but it still wouldn't take the mackerel we dangled in front of it. On the eighth day it died, and only then did I realize that what we had caught was not a mako, but a young great white shark. I felt pretty stupid for not recognizing it when we caught it, but in the excitement of catching and getting the shark into the boat neither of us took the time to study its identifying features.
On the next trip out, and on many subsequent ones, we refined the collection and transport method to the point where we could bring two blue sharks in at the same time if they weren't much longer than six feet. Unlike the great white, the blue sharks readily began to feed and appeared to do fine--but only for a month or so. Then we noticed a change in their swimming posture: no longer perfectly horizontal in the water, they began to swim in a slightly tail-down position. Too, they seemed to be working harder at swimming. It became clear that they were losing weight, and autopsies later showed that much of the weight loss was from their liver.
Most species of pelagic, or free-swimming, sharks have large, oil-rich livers that, in addition to their metabolic functions, act as a buoyancy organ. As the oil in their liver was used up to provide energy they became heavier in the water and had to work harder to stay up. It became a vicious downward spiral: the harder they worked to stay up, the more they consumed of their liver, which caused them to grow heavier in the water, and so they had to work harder to stay up. In spite of being given all the food they could eat, they were using up their stored energy faster than they could replace it.
Our conclusion was that the pelagic blue shark is designed for long-distance cruising in a mostly straight line with a very low expenditure of energy and need for food. In its own environment, this design is very efficient, but I had created a tank that forced them to be constantly turning. Their metabolism was simply not designed for that much energy expenditure.
Our success with makos was almost zero but for different reasons. Makos are like the race car of the shark world: they need to actively swim at all times to stay alive. Just supplying them with lots of oxygen as we did with the blue sharks was not enough. After only forty-five minutes in transport they were barely alive when we arrived at the shark tank, and they died shortly afterward. Apparently the rhythmic contractions of the muscles during swimming play a vital role in the circulation of the blood of the mako shark.
Our lack of success caused us to terminate the research into local California sharks. Today, thirty years later, there still has been only mixed results displaying blue sharks. However, it is still possible they may do well in a much larger, correctly designed tank that has long straight runs and no turns except at the ends. Blues are one of the most beautiful and graceful of all the sharks, and it would be wonderful if they could be kept in good health in a large aquarium somewhere. Hopefully someone, somewhere, will have the opportunity to try it. Showing aquarium visitors the beauty of the blue shark may help stop the killing of hundreds of thousands every year for shark-fin soup, or as unwanted by-catch in the worldwide open-ocean longline and gill-net fisheries.
Flying Texas Sharks
With the end of our experimental work with local temperate-water sharks, we turned our attention to East Coast warm-water species that we knew did well in aquariums. The only problem was, they were three thousand miles away. How could we get them all the way to the West Coast? As luck would have it, an opportunity soon came along to test the feasibility of shipping tropical species of sharks by air.
Sea World was negotiating the trade of a pilot whale to the Searama oceanarium in Galveston, Texas. Searama had a number of bull sharks and lemon sharks in their large central tank that they had collected right in Galveston Bay, and they agreed to let me run a simulated shipping test with one of their six-foot bulls. The plan was to design and build a shipping container in San Diego and send it, together with life-support equipment, to Galveston for the test. When this was done I flew back there to set up the equipment at the side of their exhibit tank. The next step was to capture one of the bull sharks and simulate the conditions of a real shipment.
The main display tank at Searama was quite interesting. It contained a collection of just about everything from the Gulf of Mexico-- alligator gars, big green morays, red drums, great barracudas, stingrays, giant jewfish, and, of course, several bull and lemon sharks. Young women in bikinis performed daily underwater feeding shows. I was amazed that these young women were swimming with notoriously dangerous bull sharks, which are known to attack more people worldwide than any other shark. And not only were these young women swimming with the sharks, but they were carrying food for the other fishes as well.
The bull shark lives close to shore and often goes into brackish water and sometimes even freshwater. It has been caught three thousand miles up the Amazon, and once up the Mississippi as far as Ohio. For many years this shark was known in other parts of the world by different names--the Zambezi River shark in South Africa, the Lake Nicaragua shark in Central America--until they were all shown to be the same species.
Curator Tom Whitman explained that it was quite safe to swim with the bulls because they treat the tank most of the time with a low dose of copper sulfate to control algae. This suppresses both the appetite and the aggressive nature of the sharks. Periodically they discontinue the copper, and the sharks are then fed. It still seemed risky to me, but they'd been doing it without a problem for a number of years, and I couldn't argue with that.
Tom organized the capture of our test bull shark. First his divers, using a large crowder net, herded the bull into a small connecting holding tank. It was then lifted out on a stretcher and lowered into my test transport tank. The oxygen was already on, and the bull shark quickly settled down under the mildly sedating effect of the high oxygen concentration. The test was to run for twenty hours, which was the estimated time for a real shipment of sharks from their tank in Galveston to our tank in San Diego.
Partway through the test a man named Gerrit Klay came by. He was an aquarist from the Cleveland Aquarium in Ohio and was down in Galveston to collect small bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo) to ship by air to his aquarium. The sixteen-or-so-inch bonnetheads, a relative of the larger hammerheads, were small enough that they fit into large plastic bags in standard Styrofoam shipping containers. He was very successful with this method, and it was quite an achievement to have bonnetheads exhibited at an inland aquarium in Ohio. Gerry Klay showed great interest in my experimental shipping test, especially the pump method of achieving high levels of oxygen. Two years later he left the Cleveland Aquarium to set up his own shark collecting business in the Florida Keys using the same transport methods he saw me using in Galveston.
After twenty hours the bull shark was released back into the exhibit. Although it was a little groggy for the first hour, it recovered completely and the simulated shipping test was deemed a success.
We next planned a real shipment of three bull sharks and one lemon shark from Galveston to San Diego. In addition, a whole menagerie of other fishes, including seventeen alligator gars, two huge three-hundred-pound jewfish, a beautiful giant green moray, and an assortment of smaller fishes from the Gulf of Mexico, would be transported--all in exchange for Sea World's one pilot whale. Of course, you don't just buy a ticket on a passenger plane for a shipment like this, so a Flying Tigers cargo jet was chartered to fly the pilot whale in one direction and all the fishy creatures in the other direction. The key people, besides myself, were Kym Murphy of Sea World, Tom Whitman of Searama, and--once again relenting to my plea for help--Bob Kiwala of Scripps. I'm sure he later regretted agreeing to come along "just for the fun of it."
All of our various-sized fiberglassed wooden shipping boxes had been sent ahead to Galveston, and at midnight we set about catching the animals in preparation for the drive to the Galveston airport and the waiting cargo plane. The four sharks were herded into the murky water of the small holding tank adjacent to the main display. To get them out we had to jump into the two-foot-deep pool and try to grab them as they swam by. It's quite unnerving having a six-foot bull shark push its way between your legs while you're trying to grab another. This was definitely in the days before government-mandated safety standards.
Somehow we managed to get all the animals into their respective shipping containers. The only casualty was one Searama diver who inadvertently backed up against the dive ladder in the main exhibit tank, where a totally unnerved giant green moray, taking refuge from the madness, had wound itself among the rungs. The moray lashed out in self-defense and bit the diver on the shoulder. He was rushed off to the hospital bleeding profusely but was okay the next day with a great story and some small wounds he could impress the girls with.
All the boxes of fish and the four sharks were finally loaded onto trucks. Because it was rush hour and we were running late, the City of Galveston provided a siren-screaming police motorcycle escort to the airport. They took their job seriously and were practically running motorists off the road so our trucks could pass. Eventually all the heavy boxes were on the plane and we were ready to go.
Concerned about the angle of the plane during takeoff, we asked the pilot to keep it as level as possible so water wouldn't spill out of the open boxes. We then strapped ourselves into the bucket seats at the rear of the cargo space behind our fish. The plane roared down the runway, and as soon as it was airborne the pilot pulled back on the controls and aimed for the sky.
Just as we had feared, water and fish poured out of the boxes. We couldn't do a thing about it until the plane leveled off a little. Then we scrambled around grabbing fish and tossing them back into their tanks. Kym Murphy was slipping and sliding on the deck rollers--intended for the easy moving of heavy freight containers--trying to pick up a slithering moray; somehow he got it back where it belonged. We then bucketed water from full tanks into ones that had lost water. The seawater that had surged out mysteriously disappeared down into whatever was below the deck.
The cockpit was open and Bob went up to talk to the pilot. He said, "That was a pretty impressive takeoff. You lost two hundred gallons of saltwater!" Without turning around the pilot said, "You take care of the fish and we'll take care of the airplane." Well, okay, we thought. Glad it's your plane, not ours.
All went well until we crossed over west Texas and hit a violent thunderstorm. The plane was thrown around and the groupers and alligator gars freaked out, leaping and splashing and spilling even more seawater down below. Moving about to check on the pumps, batteries, and our fishes was extremely difficult thanks to the steel deck rollers, which made walking upright virtually impossible. So we crawled around on hands and knees, hanging on to whatever we could grab.
Things calmed down after Texas, and pretty soon we were about an hour out of San Diego. About then all the lights in the plane went out: we instantly knew that the spilled seawater had shorted out the electrical system. Now it was pitch black in the back except for the meager beams of our flashlights. We all prayed that it was only the lights and not the plane's controls that had shorted. Up in the cockpit red lights were flashing as the engineer peered into the electrical panel, a concerned look on his face.
When we got close to the San Diego airport, the pilots had a problem getting the landing gear down. We circled around for a while before they succeeded. At this point smart-ass Bob went back up to the cockpit and said, "Well, we took care of the fish; how you doing with the airplane?" He got no response. We'd been told that the plane was supposed to leave that night for the Philippines, but we heard later that the plane was laid up for two months for electrical system repair. That flight, together with another later one by Gerry Klay, led to strict design and construction guidelines of shark-shipping boxes so they couldn't lose water. From years at aquariums experiencing what seawater can do to electrical systems, I knew that was a wise policy. I don't think they addressed problems caused by know-it-all pilots, however. Flying Tigers refused to charter planes to Sea World for some years after, and Gerry Klay was banned by all cargo airlines for a while.
In spite of the difficulties, the sharks, the groupers, and all the smaller fishes made it. Sadly, we lost some of the seventeen gars because of overcrowding. Unlike most fish, gars are air breathers, but there was so little room in their boxes that they couldn't all get up to breathe when we hit that turbulence over Texas. Indeed, we learned a lot from that ambitious, pioneering shipment.
A Reconnaissance Trip
Our success with the tropical sharks from Galveston encouraged us to look for a closer source of warm-water species. The Gulf of California isn't far from San Diego, but little was known about the abundance and distribution of the sharks in the upper part of the Gulf.
There was one useful publication on eastern Pacific sharks, written by Susumu Kato of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but none of us at Sea World had any personal shark experience in the area. No cargo planes fly down to the upper Gulf, and the only paved road went as far as San Felipe in Baja California. We decided to make a reconnaissance trip and put out baited setlines to see what we could catch. We didn't plan to bring any sharks back on this first trip; we just wanted to find out what was there.
Because of its long, narrow shape, the Gulf of California at its northern end, near San Felipe, is noted for having the second highest tidal change in the world after the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. During the time of the new and full moon spring tides, the water level rises twenty-five feet from low to high tide in six hours. That's an incredible amount of surging water.
The local fishermen of San Felipe have learned to take advantage of this tidal fluctuation. When a fishing boat needs work done below the waterline, they simply drive the boat at high tide to a low spot near the middle of town and wait for the tide to go out. The boat is then high and dry and they have a few hours to do their work before the water returns to refloat their boat.
Our team consisted of two Sea World aquarists, John Hart and Jerry Kinmont, and myself. Together we loaded up John's truck and then towed our eighteen-foot outboard collecting boat down to San Felipe. Our plan was to use it to set out small, bottom-fishing setlines. We had also made up a half-mile-long floating setline that we would set from a bigger boat to see what larger sharks might be there. This line was to be buoyed up by a series of truck inner tubes, with the baited hooks hanging twenty or thirty feet below the surface. An anchor at each end would keep the setline from drifting or being towed away by the current--or by any creature that might get caught.
We chartered a small fishing boat and hired its owner to take us out a couple of miles from shore to put out our gear. We'd brought boxes of frozen mackerel to use as bait. The baiting and setting of the longline went without mishap, and we returned to San Felipe Harbor to while away a few hours. When we headed back out to see what we'd caught, there wasn't a trace of the half-mile-long line with its twenty inflated inner tubes. We circled around for some time looking, but eventually gave up. We decided to return in the morning and search again before writing the line off as lost.
This was the first day, and it wasn't looking like a good start to our trip. We were totally baffled as to how the line could have disappeared without a trace. We had visions of some huge shark towing it off, anchors, floats, and all. The next morning we got up early and headed out to the same area--and there were all the inner tubes bobbing quietly at the surface right where we had left them. Suddenly it dawned on us: the tremendous tidal change also causes powerful currents. The strong current had sucked every inner tube completely underwater and out of sight. The pull on the anchors from that ripping current must have been tremendous, but they dug in and held.
We began to pull in our line to see if we had caught anything. Soon we felt something large on one of the leaders, and it was trying to head away from the boat. Eventually, as we continued to pull in, a head and large mouth came into view through the murky water. We were excited to recognize it as a still-alive, ten-foot-long great white shark. Unfortunately, even though it was still swimming weakly, the shark was brain-dead from lack of oxygen. Confined too long on the line, it had been unable to swim freely and to pass enough life-sustaining water across its gills to maintain its oxygen-sensitive nervous system. I knew from past experience that it wouldn't survive if we released it.
The owner of the boat said he wanted to keep it to sell in the fish market, but at an estimated eight hundred pounds it was much too heavy for us to lift into the boat. So he killed it with a knife lashed to a net handle and we tied it off to the side of the boat. Pulling in the remaining longline, we felt another shark. It also turned out to be a great white, this time an eight-footer, which we managed to get on board. White sharks make for good eating; this would be a fine catch to bring back to the village.
Our first day had been most strange: first a magically vanishing and reappearing line, and then two unexpected great white sharks. Not what we were after, but still very interesting.
The skipper, not knowing what to do about the larger shark alongside, decided to turn it loose tied to one of our inner tubes and come back for it later with more help. I was a bit puzzled by this decision. Didn't he know that in a few hours the tremendous currents that surge up and down the Gulf every time the tide changes would carry his shark and its float miles away? I was sure he'd never see the fish or the tube again.
We planned to do more fishing with the smaller longlines and were just rounding the north point when our 150-horsepower Mercury outboard made a screeching sound like tortured metal and shuddered to a stop. It was completely seized up. What now? We were about three miles from San Felipe in a heavy boat with one locked-up engine and two little paddles. A slight breeze was blowing south toward town, though, so we optimistically hung the vinyl shark stretcher from the shark-lifting davits to make a crude sail, and soon we were sailing along at a barely perceptible speed. Of course, if the current had started to run north, we would have gone backward at a much higher pace.
We had plenty of drinking water on board--a wise precaution in these unpredictable waters--so we just lay back and relaxed. A couple of hours went by and along came a Mexican fisherman in his trusty panga, one of the sturdy, efficient, seaworthy fishing skiffs used all over Mexico. A 50-horsepower Johnson outboard planes these impressive little boats along at a very respectable speed and fuel economy, regardless of their load. Laughing at our predicament and our huge nonfunctional engine, the fisherman kindly gave us a tow back in to San Felipe.
That pretty much ended the reconnaissance trip for sharks: there wasn't much we could do with an inoperative boat. Still, despite the brevity of the trip, we had learned something. Because we'd caught white sharks, which like cool water, we concluded that this was the wrong time of year for the tropical sharks we wanted. We had chosen this time of year to avoid the problems that scorching hot weather would have caused if we'd tried to ship live sharks up to San Diego. But clearly that didn't help if our quarry was basking in the warmer waters of southern Mexico.
Losing Sea World's Boat
We decided to resume our shark hunt in the early fall, when the water would still be quite warm but the air would not be a hundred-plus degrees like it is in the middle of summer. Even though our reconnaissance trip had been cut short, the plan for our second expedition was to bring live sharks back to Sea World. We had collecting permits from Mexico City--which, we hoped, meant there would be no trouble at the border or with the Oficina de Pesca official in San Felipe. Because we planned to bring live sharks back with us, the arrangements for this trip were much more elaborate and would, among other things, involve setting up a holding tank on the beach to keep the sharks in prior to driving them out.
I was again working with John Hart and Jerry Kinmont, as well as veterinarian Jay Sweeney and Dr. Murray Dailey, a parasitologist from Long Beach State University whose special interest was the parasites of elasmobranchs--sharks and their relatives. He was most eager to check out the internal parasitic fauna found in sharks and rays from this seldom-studied region.
We towed down the same eighteen-foot Thunderbird collecting boat, now equipped with a new 150-horsepower Mercury outboard engine. Arriving in San Felipe, we checked into a small motel on the beach at the south end of town. Murray Dailey was really impatient to get at his favorite animals--shark parasites--and he begged me to let him put out a small setline to see what he could catch overnight. Giving in to his pleading, I helped him launch the boat. Murray then laid out the small baited setline not far from shore and, when he was through, anchored the boat off the beach in front of the motel and swam in.
We all went into the center of town for supper and to discuss our plans for the next day. Arriving back at the motel after dark, we sat on the patio looking out to sea. Suddenly someone said, "Where's the boat?" We stared out into the dark; none of us could see it. We knew there was enough light shining out from the motel to illuminate the light-colored hull, but it simply wasn't there! We also noticed that an offshore wind had sprung up and was blowing out to sea.
A feeling of panic overcame us. We all jumped in the truck and drove into town to see if we could find a panga fisherman to run out and try to find the boat. We managed to raise one sleeping fisherman from his warm bed. Muttering something unintelligible in Spanish, he headed down to his boat and out into the dark sea. He came back in an hour, said, "No good, too dark, too rough, we go look mañ," and then went back to bed.
The offshore wind had picked up considerably by now, and we knew the boat must have drifted a good distance from shore, on its way toward the mainland of Mexico, seventy miles across the Gulf. We mentally reconstructed what had happened. Being unfamiliar with the extreme tides in San Felipe, Murray had put out what he thought was an ample length of anchor line. But it was low tide. When the tide came back in, the rising boat simply lifted the anchor out of the sand, and away it went with the offshore wind. It really wasn't Murray's fault, but he felt terrible. I blamed myself for not warning him about the Gulf's tremendous tides.
Feeling totally helpless, we went back to the bar for some tequilas and desperately tried to think of some way to find Sea World's boat. There is a little dirt air strip in San Felipe; maybe if we could talk an American pilot into flying out over the Gulf, he'd be able to spot the little boat drifting along.
After a sleepless night we got up at dawn to drive to the airfield. By now the wind was blowing about forty knots straight out to sea. But luck seemed to be with us: a Cessna was just getting ready to leave. We told the pilot of our predicament and asked if he would help us by taking a quick look for our missing boat. He said he was sorry but if he didn't get out of there right now and head for the States he wouldn't be able to take off later if the wind got any worse. We watched him taxi to the end of the strip, take off, and disappear. Our last hope of getting the boat back was dashed.
Even though it was still early morning, we headed for the bar, where we sat staring blankly out at the choppy sea, mentally preparing our resumes for our next jobs. Three tequilas later Murray said, "Look! What's that?" and pointed to two specks heading toward us from the horizon. As they came closer we recognized the distinctive Sea World Thunderbird and alongside it a panga, with one man in each boat.
Grabbing a large amount of cash from my room, we raced down to the harbor to greet the two returning boats. I could have kissed the two fishermen! What they were doing way out there in this awful wind I never did find out, but they had spotted our boat sailing merrily along toward the Mexican mainland. The keys, of course, were in the ignition and it had a full tank of gas. One of the men had just hopped in, started the boat up, and headed back to San Felipe, with the panga planing along beside it.
That was the best two hundred dollars of someone else's money I ever gave away! The fishermen were delighted to get this unexpected windfall from the crazy gringos. I was delighted to keep my job and happy that Murray Dailey didn't have to live with the lost boat on his conscience. I never told Sea World management what really happened and managed to conceal the missing money through some creative bookkeeping supported by indecipherable Mexican receipts.
Sharks In Mexico
With that nerve-wracking event behind us we turned our attention to catching sharks. The first project was to set up a twenty-foot-diameter circular portable plastic swimming pool on the beach. Having already experienced the extreme San Felipe tides, we wanted to be absolutely sure it was well above high tide. The logical approach was to ask the people who lived right there at the motel. They came out and pointed to a spot where it would be perfectly safe from the highest possible tide. Using buried plywood boards as sand anchors, we laid out the pool and its sunshade, an inexpensive army surplus parachute that worked well and was surprisingly windproof.
The full moon came a week later, and with it the spring tide with its extreme highs and lows. We watched as each day the high tide crept closer and closer to our precious shark pool. One day it was lapping at the base of the pool, and we hadn't even reached the maximum tide. I could have killed the man who said the pool would be completely safe, but he made sure he was nowhere to be found.
Faced with two more days of high tides, we rallied our meager forces and built a seawall between the pool and the incoming tide, using our empty fiberglass shark transport boxes and filling them with sand. Guests staying at the motel pitched in and helped shovel sand to fight the relentless ocean. We looked and felt truly stupid for erecting our pool where the ocean could reach it; however, we fought on and eventually passed the peak of the high tides. Now we had two clear weeks before the new moon and its series of high tides came.
Collecting began. We put out longlines in the bay of San Felipe; we caught mostly rays of several species and a few small sharpnose sharks (Rhizoprionodon longurio). Outside the bay in deeper water we caught a huge four-hundred-pound mako and some four-foot-long bignose sharks (Carcharhinus altimus), which were listed as rare in Sus Kato's shark book. They were small, but they did well in our holding tank.
One of the locals told us about a tiburoneros', or shark fishermen's, camp around Punta Smith a few miles south; we decided it would be smart to visit the people who make their living catching sharks. The camp was inaccessible by road, so we took off in the T-bird and headed south. Arriving in the afternoon, we were greeted warmly by the fishermen, who told us they had set their nets but wouldn't be pulling them until after dark. That was okay by us; we would wait. By now we'd been around San Felipe long enough to know our way back after dark.
In the late afternoon they graciously invited us to join them and their families for a supper of fish tacos--made, of course, from dried shark meat. Next to their small hut were improvised drying racks for strips of shark meat that would be shipped to the mainland of Mexico. The shark fins would be shipped to Asia. The smell of the drying shark meat was almost overwhelming, but the tacos were surprisingly good, maybe because we hadn't planned on staying out so long and we were starving by then.
Nightfall came and the tiburoneros set out in their panga to pull the nets they had set not far from shore. It was one of those beautiful calm, warm evenings that can be so magical in the Sea of Cortez. Not a breath of wind could be felt, and the sounds of the fishermen singing and dancing on the bottom of their boat came to us clearly across the mirror-smooth water as they pulled their nets. Hearing such happy sounds, we looked forward to seeing what kinds of sharks they had caught. They returned to camp and told us there had been nothing in the nets.
That evening with the hospitable tiburoneros still haunts me. We knew that even when fishing was good they were very poor and to catch nothing must hurt, yet there they were singing and dancing as they worked, knowing all along that they might end up with nothing. What was the secret to their happiness? We wealthy Northerners, with all our material possessions, would have been cursing our bad luck if we'd had a night like they had.
This collecting trip was not a great success. We ended up with two rather small bignose sharks that we brought back to Sea World. We'd had three beautiful two-foot-long hammerheads in our holding pool, but some kids saw them as great things to play with and killed them. I'm sure they didn't mean to hurt them when they were grabbing their tails and dorsal fins; they just didn't know how delicate they were.
Because of the poor results and the difficult logistics, this was our last attempt to collect sharks in the Sea of Cortez. Although expensive, it turned out to be more practical to collect on the East Coast of the United States and transport the sharks across the country.
Underwater Thoughts The morning fog was beginning to lift as Bob Kiwala, Mike Weekley, and I headed out of Monterey Harbor in the eighteen-foot outboard. We were in our wet suits, and the boat was loaded with six scuba tanks and our dive gear as well as a gasoline-powered pump and a hundred feet of garden hose. The Monterey Bay Aquarium was nearing completion, the exhibits were coming together, and we had started collecting the thousands of fishes and invertebrates the visitors would be coming to see in the fall of 1984, now only a few months away.
As unlikely as a hundred feet of garden hose may seem, it was the key to success in collecting the beautiful burrowing sea anemones (Pachycerianthus fimbriatus) that are so abundant in the sandy mud bottom near the base of Monterey's Coast Guard breakwater. After dropping anchor in fifty feet of water, Bob and I put on our weights, tanks, fins, and masks, rolled over into the water, and headed for the bottom clutching one end of the hose. On board, Mike fired up the pump engine, and water jetted out of the hose end. Swimming down, we were buzzed by a couple of curious sea lions--who were wondering, no doubt, what we were up to.
On the bottom we saw dozens of sea anemones, their crowns of tentacles gently waving in the slight current a foot or so above the seafloor. Their delicate look was deceptive, however, for not visible were the two-foot-long tubes that lie buried beneath the firm mud bottom. That's why we needed the pump and garden hose.
Although all of these anemones are the same species, they come in three distinct colors. Most have light gray tentacles, but for some reason a few have either deep purple or glowing orange tentacles. These orange anemones are puzzling. Because seawater, as it increases in depth, selectively filters out the red end of the light spectrum before the blue, no orange light reaches fifty feet below the surface; yet there they are, glowing bright orange. We understand the physics of how they appear orange when there's no orange light--the tissues in their tentacles refract the short blue wavelength and change it to the longer wavelength of orange--but the biological reason for this phenomenon remains a mystery. In any event, the visual effect is striking. Selecting a fine-looking orange specimen, I started blowing the muddy bottom away from around the anemone's tube with the jet of water from the end of the garden hose. Gradually working my hand and the hose deeper and deeper until reaching the bottom of the animal's tube, I gently lifted it out, unharmed, and placed it in a plastic bag.
What a bizarre way to make a living! Here I was, fifty feet below the surface of the bay, totally obscured in a cloud of mud, with my left arm stuck clear up to my armpit in the bottom, trying to dig out a sea anemone. In spite of the numbing cold and zero visibility, I was thoroughly enjoying every minute and felt quite at home in this underwater world.
At times like these, I wonder how I was ever so fortunate as to end up in this strange line of work. Yet looking back, I can spot clear signposts steering me away from well-traveled, traditional, acceptable employment routes straight toward my chosen career.
Sleeping with Fish
The earliest sign, which I can't even remember, is one my mother told me about. I was born in South Africa in 1927 to American parents. When I was about five, my mother and father took my sister and me to the seashore town of Durban for a day at the beach and to do some fishing. With my father's help, I caught a fish, perhaps my very first. That night I insisted on sleeping with it under my pillow, and my tolerant mother agreed. While this may have been on the fringes of accepted behavior for "normal" kids, I see it as an omen, the sign of a born biologist. After all, Jane Goodall, or so I heard, slept with earthworms under her pillow.
My family moved to England in 1932. As a boy growing up in England, I was constantly drawn to water and would catch newts, water boatmen, and dragonfly larvae to keep in jars in my room. Using a primitive microscope, I would study with fascination the beating heart and developing brood of babies inside the tiny female water flea (Daphnia). Off I would go on my bicycle with my fishing rod, dip net, and jar to explore the streams and lakes within a wide range of home or school. This was the early 1940s, and England and Germany were at war. Practically all food except bread and vegetables was strictly rationed, and my fishing efforts, while fun for me, contributed significantly to our table.
My first job, at the age of fourteen, was at a canoe and punt rental operation next to Oxford University's Magdelan College on the river Thames. I kept the boats clean, bailed out water, and chauffeured people on leisurely cruises in a punt, one of those long, narrow boats propelled by pushing against the river bottom with a long pole. Many times during those years I read and reread Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, written in 1676, and relished both the fish lore and the poetry.
My mother had a tendency to embrace whatever was the latest educational theory. As a result of her avant-garde thinking, my sister and I attended a succession of drastically different schools: a nudist school where, weather permitting, teachers and students were naked; a school in Wimbledon with a philosophy similar to that of the well-known Summerhill, the only rule being not to hurt anyone; and a strict Church of England school.
Fortunately, I ended up in a fine Quaker school, though by then I had become something of a rebel and troublemaker. The Friends' School in Saffron Walden was in the southeast of England. At that time, the Battle of Britain was at its height, and planes from Germany, England, and America were being shot down, some within easy bike-riding distance of my school. Before long I began experimenting with explosives taken from the machine-gun cartridges of downed planes. One night an accomplice and I set off a homemade "bomb" in the school's goldfish pond. A geyser of water and goldfish shot twenty feet into the air. Frantically scooping up a few of the fattest ones, we ran off before the school staff discovered the origin of the loud noise. Sneaking into the chem lab, we cooked the goldfish in a pan over a bunsen burner. To perpetually hungry, growing boys enduring wartime food rationing, these fish, seasoned by the excitement of the adventure, tasted delicious.
My experiments with explosives grew in magnitude until a concerned classmate tipped off the headmaster. I was called to his office, given a stern lecture on the dangers of my activities, and expelled from school for a month.
Another sign of my biological bent came when, as a sixteen-year-old, I began to question some of the school's curriculum. What earthly use was French or calculus going to be to me when I was out in the world earning a living? I wanted to quit school and get a job somewhere working with fish. The understanding headmaster talked me out of it. Acknowledging my desire, he explained that without some sort of degree I would end up cleaning fish tanks for the rest of my life. Years later, I had to laugh. Having earned a master's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), I found myself doing just that: cleaning fish tanks along with my other tasks at Marineland of the Pacific.
At age seventeen I graduated from the Friends' School and was now subject to the military draft. Fortunately, I had both American and British citizenship, so I signed up as a mess boy on an American freighter returning to the States in convoy, under nightly attack by German U-boats from Liverpool to New York. I spent the remainder of World War II on Liberty ships in the Pacific ferrying war supplies to the battle zones of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and the Philippines. When the war ended, I served as a medical technician in the U.S. Army for a year and a half on Okinawa.
This military service qualified me to take advantage of the G.I. Bill's free education for service personnel. I enrolled at UCLA, finally able to focus on my dream. Although the U.S. government covered school fees and books, I had to pay my own living expenses. I therefore took on a wide variety of part-time jobs: I worked the night desk at a Sunset Boulevard motel and the graveyard shift at a gas station; I served as night attendant in the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Hospital--a very disturbing job--and maintained the live Maine lobster holding facility at a Malibu restaurant. For two summers I worked as a seasonal aide for the California Department of Fish and Game catching, measuring, tagging, and releasing yellowtail from sportfishing boats out of Long Beach and San Pedro harbors. It was great work, but it also gave me a taste of the bureaucracy in a government agency.
Descent into a New World
I can blame Jacques Cousteau for nudging me in the direction that was to become my life. A friend gave me a copy of Cousteau's first book, The Silent World. I was so fascinated with his descriptions of his experiences underwater that I knew I had to learn to dive. Because I was a student and constantly short of money, though, diving was not a simple matter. I talked my younger cousin, Norman Powell, into going halves with me on whatever equipment we needed to get started.
Primitive Diving Gear By present standards the diving equipment in the 1950s was primitive, hard to use, and potentially dangerous if you didn't keep your wits about you at all times.
The Cousteau-Gagnan regulator had two large hoses for the air, one for inhaling and one for exhaling. Although the regulator was quite easy to breathe with underwater, a major problem occurred any time you took the mouthpiece out of your mouth while you were in the water. The hoses immediately filled with water, including the one that was supposed to supply you with air. The air hose now became a water hose. If you stuck the mouthpiece back in your mouth and sucked, you got half a gallon of seawater instead of air.
The trick to avoiding that unpleasant situation was a little routine that had to be followed religiously. Whenever your air hoses became full of water--which happened rather often--you rolled over on your left side and exhaled. If you did it correctly, this blew most of the water out of the exhaust hose. The water that was in the air supply hose, on the right, now flowed downhill into the theoretically empty exhale hose. Inhaling very cautiously, you could get a lungful of air--mixed, of course, with a little of the water that didn't quite get blown out. The whole procedure was annoying at best, but downright dangerous if your mouthpiece was knocked out underwater.
Luckily, the double-hoses-full-of-water situation didn't last very long. An independent and inventive diver devised a pair of check valves that you could buy and install to keep the water out of the inhale hose. Now if it flooded, the only water would be in the small space in the mouthpiece itself. This made diving more pleasant and took much of the worry out of losing your mouthpiece in awkward places, like a hundred feet down or in the dark of night with your hands occupied with a lobster, dive light, and bag. Eventually, the U.S. Divers Company incorporated check valves in all of their regulators.
My first few dives were made in the summer, and I wore long underwear for "warmth." Maybe it helped, but not much. Thirty minutes into the dive I was shivering: I needed some way to keep warm. There were dry dive suits available, and I saved up for one made by Pirelli, the Italian car tire manufacturer. It was made out of thin, smooth rubber to keep the water away from your body, and you wore clothing underneath it for warmth.
The name "dry suit" was a misnomer because on practically every dive, whenever you brushed against a rock, a hole was poked in the thin rubber. The suit took on water, and there went the insulation from the cold. Climbing out of the water after a dive, I would feel the water that had leaked in run down to the lowest point, and my leg would balloon out as though I were suffering from an advanced case of elephantiasis.
After a couple of years, closed-cell foam neoprene came on the market and we had access to true wet suits. I couldn't afford a custom-made suit, so my wife, Betty, and her cousin Frank Parker's wife, B.J., measured me and cut out the rubber material to fit, and we all glued it together. I wouldn't call it the best-glued suit in the world, but it was a huge improvement over the perpetually leaking "dry suits."
We went to the only dive shop in California at the time, the French-run U.S. Divers Company in Westwood Village. We bought one tank, one regulator, a pair of fins, a Squale mask, and a little instruction pamphlet that came with the French-manufactured Cousteau-Gagnan Aqua Lung regulator, serial number 106. Not having access to a pool to try it out, the two of us putted out in my little ten-foot skiff to the Long Beach breakwater in search of some reasonably clear water. Nervously, I put on the tank, fins, and mask and slipped into the water. It was incredible! I was actually breathing underwater, and all around me and all over the rocky bottom were wonderful undersea creatures. I was truly in their world.
The Los Angeles Harbor is far from the most scenic dive spot in the world, but to me it was thrilling. After using up what I guessed was half the tank of air, I surfaced and clambered out on the breakwater rocks. Norman went next but was not nearly as impressed. He never did take to the underwater world like I did; eventually, in fact, he became a land-based geophysicist rather than a marine biologist. To each his own.
For the next year or so I went diving every chance I had. Most of my diving was done solo because I knew few other divers then. One year I was fortunate enough to get a part-time job collecting specimens for the invertebrate zoology classes at UCLA. This gave me a chance to dive and actually call it work, although the pay was very low. With my background in biology, I was fascinated with the life I saw beneath the surface, but I was equally excited by the very act of diving itself. However, just being able to breathe underwater in this new world and to stay submerged for relatively long periods of time didn't quench my thirst. I was eager to learn the secrets of the lives of each creature I saw--and for many years almost every dive I made revealed something new to me.
Although I was only one of the millions of people living in the vast, asphalt-covered city of Los Angeles, I knew I was one of the privileged few. I was able to enter an ocean full of strange, alien beings that exists right at our doorstep. Meanwhile, those millions went about their daily lives totally unaware of this fascinating world just beyond the shore.
First Night Dive
One day one of the French divers at the U.S. Divers store mentioned that he had gone out the night before with an underwater light and caught some spiny lobsters (Panulirus interruptus). That sounded pretty exciting, besides which, it had great gastronomic possibilities. As a working college student I couldn't afford to buy luxuries like lobsters, but this could be a way I could get some virtually free, just for the picking. The diver showed me the light he used. It was a basic two-cell flashlight inside a specially made rubber case, with a hose clamp where the rubber fits around the plastic lens. Of course, the dive shop wanted more money for the light than I was willing or even able to pay.
At the time, I was working the graveyard shift in a gas station, and we quite often replaced burned-out headlights on cars. A car headlight has two filaments, for the low and high beams. When the low beam burns out, the lamp has to be replaced, even though it still has one perfectly good beam. I suspected those lamps had just the kind of brightness I needed for my first underwater venture. What's more, the sealed headlights were designed to resist both water and pressure. All I needed was a big enough battery and a long, heavy electrical cord, and I'd have myself a remarkably serious underwater light: a car high beam underwater. At a war-surplus store I found fifty feet of heavy-gauge, well-insulated, very cheap electrical cord. After soldering the two wires securely to the lamp terminals, I waterproofed the connection with some tar-impregnated electrical tape and then melted it together with a flame over the kitchen stove. When connected to the battery in my car, the light was really bright, and it worked quite well underwater in a bucket. I was in business.
I talked Norman into coming with me, and one dark evening we rowed my little plywood skiff from the Santa Monica Pier out to the harbor breakwater. Decked out in tank, mask, and fins, I rolled over the side into the black water. Taking the light from Norman, I aimed it downward--and saw nothing but murky water, the bottom nowhere in view since it was beyond the beam of the light. It was spooky to be surrounded by nothingness, and for a moment I wondered if I was totally nuts to be doing this. I swam down cautiously through the dark, and finally rocks came into view, and on them was all the marine life I was familiar with. Now that I was in their reassuring presence I felt comfortable and began to look around.
There were two-spot octopuses (Octopus bimaculatus) cruising the bottom for food, and fishes huddled for the night in crevices between the boulders. A sheep crab (Loxorhynchus grandis) drew up its claws defensively when the bright light hit it. Soon I spotted the first lobster crawling over the boulders: its red color stood out beautifully in the bright car headlight. Apparently my presence or the light made it nervous, though, and when I made a grab for it the lobster shot off backward with amazing speed and disappeared into the dark. Whoa! This was not going to be as easy as I thought! Lobsters don't just sit there waiting to be picked up. Cruising on a little farther I spotted another one, and this time I grabbed it with all the speed I could muster. It worked; I now had a firm grip across the back of the frantically flapping lobster.
Returning to the surface I found the skiff and Norman, who had the challenging job of trying to follow my bubbles and the electrical cable in the dark. I tossed the lobster over the gunwale into the boat. Back down I went, and by the time I ran out of air we had six nice lobsters crawling around the bottom of the skiff, the largest weighing about eight pounds. This night diving was all right! For seventy-five cents' worth of scuba air and our time, which in those days was dirt cheap, we had a gourmet feast for a number of people.
Building a Ticket to Explore
The little ten-foot skiff with its often unreliable seven-horsepower outboard engine had proved to be fine for diving in calm, nearby areas with a maximum load of two pretty lightweight people, but I was anxious to see what lay farther afield. The coasts off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island were well outside the safe range of my little skiff. Norman and I decided to build a boat that could take us to those exciting places twenty miles away.
Norman was working at the time for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and had a reliable income. I was still going to UCLA plus working part-time, and I had little money to spend on anything beyond bare necessities and the cheapest California jug wine. Norman generously offered to buy most of the equipment and materials; I would contribute my labor. We decided on an eighteen-foot plywood hull that would be powered by a seventy-five-horsepower, four-cylinder inboard marine engine. Buying materials and equipment a little at a time, we worked on it in our spare time for well over a year.
For me the experience meant an ongoing series of problems to solve, not the least of which was developing the self-discipline to keep focused on the dream of the completed boat. There were times when I became discouraged by the seemingly endless tasks that lay between the present and our goal. The hundreds of problems to solve during the construction had their own small rewards, though, and with the completion of each one there was a sense of accomplishment.
As rewarding as the creative process and the end result were, it's not an experience I'd want to repeat. Building a boat is about ten times more work than you think it could possibly be. By this time I had owned three other small boats, and I knew I would always have a boat in my life. Part of me must be a soul mate of Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, who said, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing--absolutely nothing--half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." In later years, though, when I was no longer broke, I would buy used ones and fix them up rather than build from scratch.
The day finally came when our boat was done and we launched it from the Santa Monica Pier. It was a pleasant surprise when everything worked as it was supposed to. Giving throttle, we planed along at a respectable speed of twenty knots. What a joy it was to finally experience the culmination of our months of work! I ended up using the boat far more than Norman did. When I came into a little inheritance money after my father's death a few years later, I took it all and bought out Norman's share.
Actually, I give that little boat a great deal of credit for my career in public aquariums. It provided me with the opportunity to dive in a host of interesting places and to learn firsthand about the life in the underwater world. The observations I was able to make of the habitats and behavior of marine animals, not to mention the diving skills I acquired, were invaluable to me. In addition, that boat, plus the circumstances of being constantly poor, gave me a do-it-yourself attitude and taught me the art and skill of problem solving, improvising, and inventing. These hard-won lessons would serve me well for years to come.
Octopus in My Living Room
Early on I set up a small marine aquarium in my room to keep some of the creatures I collected while diving or tide pooling. One creature in particular, a little octopus, fascinated my friends. One day in 1954, Betty Mumby, a fellow UCLA student, asked if she could come up and see my octopus. That was probably one of the more unusual lines to lead to a relationship, but it certainly worked. We started seeing more and more of each other, and pretty soon we married.
Betty worked full-time in the UCLA Admissions Office while I finished my master's degree. A couple of years after we married I finally got my degree and started to look seriously for a job. By then Betty was seven months pregnant. Unfortunately, the world wasn't crying out for marine biologists, and I couldn't find a thing. I even applied for work in the aircraft industry--twisting the truth about my education just a bit--in an effort to get any kind of paying job. Betty, now very close to term, finally quit her job on a Friday, I found a job on Monday, and our daughter Eve was born on Thursday. That was cutting it pretty close.
In desperation I'd walked in the front door of the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant and asked if they had any job openings. I could barely believe it when they told me they had a temporary job in the lab. That huge plant treated and discharged all the sewage from the City of Los Angeles. My job was to test for coliform bacteria on the seawater samples taken daily in Santa Monica Bay from Malibu to Palos Verdes. Once I got used to the odor, it was a pretty good job. We sewage workers had a saying: "It may be just shit to you, but to us it's our bread and butter."
The job had an interesting fringe benefit that was right up my alley: once a month they would collect fishes and invertebrates from the bay to determine if the sewage and the sludge discharging were having any effect on marine life. A series of stations at different depths from fifty to six hundred feet were sampled with a trawl net dragged across the bottom. I got to go out on the boat every month to help catch, count, and identify the creatures that came up in the net.
I was fascinated with some of the invertebrates that lived in the depths of the bay--grotesque, long-legged crabs covered with spines (Paralithodes spp.), delicate branching corals, and sometimes a whole netful of fragile pink sea urchins (Allocentrotus fragilis)--and I would take some of the animals from the shallower samples to keep in my home aquarium. The word quickly spread among my fellow members of the Marine Aquarium Society of Los Angeles, who were eager to see the strange and wonderful creatures in my aquarium. I can credit this hobby, my diving, and our little boat with landing me my first job as an aquarist. And what a job it was!