Another summer gone by, another Labor Day upon us and another year – the fifth straight – that I failed to set foot in the ocean.

Sad, but true. I’ve admired the mighty Atlantic from scenic overlooks, hiked along its coastline, even boated on it. But somewhere along the way, I’ve lost my longing to swim in it.

Why so?


Don’t protest that my fears are unfounded. I already know that … sort of.

Don’t tell me that I have a far greater chance of dying from a car accident than from a shark attack. Not only do I accept that as fact, I’ll also concede that I’m more likely to be crushed by a falling vending machine than crunched by an ornery great white.


And don’t tell me sharks don’t eat humans – to which I’m also willing to stipulate. My concern is having a part of my body chomped off – not what a shark does or doesn’t do with it afterward.

My shark fear, formally known as galeophobia, resurfaced this week when I came across a riveting video, taken Saturday by a woman aboard a whale-watching cruise in the Bay of Fundy. It shows a seal swimming peacefully toward its mates on a rock when, out of nowhere, a shark suddenly appears and devours the pup in seconds flat.

I warn you, it’s not pretty. And while I know it’s part of the natural cycle – seals being to sharks what double cheeseburgers are to humans – I still couldn’t watch the short clip without putting myself in the seal’s place.

As in, “Here I am, basking away in the gentle waves, and whomp! Someone tell me, please, what did I do to deserve this?”

Let’s call in an expert.

Shark researcher Jim Sulikowski, who served until recently as a professor and marine biologist at the University of New England, now keeps an eye on the oceans from his new position as associate director of Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences.


Before we proceed, it’s worth noting that a guy who knows more about sharks than the late, great Captain Quint – Sulikowski recently appeared as a guest on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” – now conducts his scientific inquiry from the safety of the Southwest desert.

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Sulikowski deadpanned over the phone Thursday morning. “But I still do (shark) research, the same as I did at UNE.”

Ah yes, research. The antidote to that terror that sets in once we get up to our necks in the surf and, like clockwork, the theme from “Jaws” starts thumping somewhere deep in our subconscious.

I’m not certain when or how my preoccupation with sharks took hold of me. But I suspect it has something to do with the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Back in the day, I’d swim away entire afternoons off those idyllic beaches, infamous only for their rip tides. Today the outer Cape is home to a growing population of great white sharks, apparently attracted by the region’s resurgent seal population.

Shark sightings in those parts have been numerous of late. So are warning signs, like the one in which a great white looms over the admonition: “Know your risk when entering the water.”


It’s no idle warning: Last summer, a 26-year-old boogie boarder was killed by a presumed great white only a few yards from the sand at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet – the first fatal shark attack on Cape Cod in more than 80 years.

Maine, for the record, has never had an unprovoked shark attack. At least not yet.

Which brings us back to my galeophobia.

My guess is that it stems not from more contrarian sharks, who have been around for 400 million years, but rather from the explosion in shark videos now meandering their way through the internet.

Take the ones, often shot from a drone, that show surfers oblivious to the shiver – I kid you not, that’s what multiple sharks are called – circling beneath them. Ditch the camera and, assuming everyone minds their own business, it’s just another day at the beach.

Add to that the media hype, to which I am admittedly contributing at this very moment, that shifts into overdrive at the mere sight of a shark patrolling a mile off Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport. Question: Why can’t we ever report on all the good things sharks do each day?


Then there’s the plain old truth: When it comes to sharks, according to Sulikowski, “we’re just not on the menu.”

While it’s true that sharks have some 300 razor-sharp teeth that go through human flesh “like butter,” as the professor so tactfully put it, it’s also true that they typically bite humans out of confusion or curiosity, not hunger.

Upon tasting humans, Sulikowski said, “they’re like, ‘Hey, that’s not it.’ And they’re gone.”

Contrast that with the green crabs, who eat everything.

“With green crabs, if you sized them up and put us in a room with one, we wouldn’t stand a chance,” Sulikowski said. So much for wading.

In the end, it all comes down to risk toleration – if you venture into the ocean, after all, nobody can guarantee you won’t get attacked by a shark – and a little common sense.


Such as, if sharks like to dine on seals or bait fish, don’t swim near seals or bait fish. Much like if you’re on a safari, Sulikowsi noted, “you’re not going to go down to a watering hole and spend the night, right? You just avoid those places.”

Other tips for avoiding a shark attack range from staying out of the water if you’re bleeding, to leaving your shiny jewelry back with the beach towel, to not trying to touch a shark if you happen to see one. Seriously?

So maybe, just maybe, I’ll swallow my trepidation and go for a quick dip this weekend. If I do, Sulikowski insisted, “I want to see pictures.”

It turns out even the shark expert appreciates the challenge.

“I’m just like everyone else,” Sulikowski confessed. “As soon as I get shoulder-deep, I’m like, ‘There’s something out there.’”

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