AS I WRITE this, it is dark and wet out. Nearly the winter solstice, it is a time best spent indoors, perhaps sharing stories of warmer days with old friends. Have I ever told you about the time I was swimming in the ocean, and a shark began biting me?
Long ago, I spent two college summers working on a beach, Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia. My brother and I had each caught the “national park bug” from high school summers spent working at Mount Rainier.
In those pre-internet days, paper applications for summer jobs in the parks could be copied and mailed to multiple parks. As the jobs were highly sought after, doing so was essential to getting hired. I recall wallpapering the country with applications.
I really didn’t care where the park was. I just wanted to see the United States by living and working in various parts of it. The cost of airfare was inconsequential, for the subsidized summer housing was so cheap—I recall paying $30 a month—that I could afford a plane ticket or two.
As I was unable to land a park naturalist job—the dream job—I spent those two ocean summers as a maintenance laborer. This was fine because the pay was better. What the Park Service apparently liked about me was that by then I had worked part-time for Ishimitsu and Sons Building Contractors. We did carpentry jobs around the International District. I helped Nisei carpenters patch the floor of the Nippon Kan Theater. We also remodeled the restaurant that is today’s Kaname.
Thus, on paper at least, I was handier with tools than many applicants. Then, as now, there are always railings, fence posts, and the like that need fixing in the parks.
That is how in the summers of 1977 and 1978 I found myself living in an old Coast Guard station near the wild south end of Assateague Island. The park occupies a barrier island offshore of the Delmarva Peninsula, which forms the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. It is the best ocean beach within driving distance of Washington, DC.
By day, my crew did whatever the beach needed. We picked up litter, mopped bathrooms, and painted its wooden buildings. I recall liking going to work in the mornings, because the first thing that would hit me going over the dunes was the scent of cocoa butter.
Evenings and days off were spent fishing, clamming, crabbing, and body surfing. The lifeguards would even let us use their rescue boards to try real surfing after they knocked off for the day.
In short, the place was a nature boy’s paradise. The shores and bays around the island teemed with fish, clams, and crabs. We could host evening parties for 40, no problem. Those who were off would spend the day gathering seafood. The locals would help us in such endeavors with their wooden skiffs and nets.
One such workmate, “Noony,” took me out one day in his boat into a bay behind the island. As a boy, Noony had been filmed in the classic movie, “Misty of Chincoteague” (1961).
We dropped Noony’s gill net, waited ten or 15 minutes, then pulled it up to pluck the perch out of it. It was like they say: “shooting fish in a barrel.”
I asked Noony why we didn’t leave the nets down longer.
“You see these big holes in the nets,” he asked and explaine that if we left the nets down longer, he wouldn’t be able to repair them. He would have to throw them away.
Fish struggling in nets are ideal food for sharks. Above water, all was serene. But below the surface, it was life and death. Sharks were plowing through the fishing-line net like knives through butter.
Shark stories were common fodder at our parties. I recall one friend, a biologist for the adjacent wildlife refuge, describe how one night he was tasked with guarding a line of baby loggerhead turtles scurrying toward the surf. Only two inches long, those poor endangered creatures must sprint for their lives the moment they emerge from the sand. Their 350-pound mother had buried their eggs deeply under the stealth of night.
Gulls and other seabirds are just waiting to snatch the baby turtles. Hence the need for biologists to shoo away the birds.
My friend described how he had escorted the turtles to the surf alright. However, there were these two fins, from small sharks, waiting waist deep for the turtles. So he had waded in, to wave off the sharks too. It was only when he got out there that he saw that the fins were both connected to the body of one long shark. And so he did his best to quietly wade back ashore.
Another biologist friend described how one day he had been out body surfing when he noticed that he was the only person in the water. People were waving at him from the beach. They were yelling something, but as he was pretty far out, he couldn’t hear.
And then a large fin sliced the water between him and the beach.
“Now Dave, I’m a wildlife biologist. I know what they say about needing to stay calm in the water around sharks.
“But the reality is that as a human being, you can’t help it. Your arms and legs just start flailing.”
My friend managed to get to waist-deep water, but by then he was spent. When a wave would push him closer toward shore, it would suck him out again on its withdrawal. He was stuck there, as shark bait.
Men on the beach saw what was happening. They waded out, dragged him to shore, and flopped him on the dry sand like a spent fish.
On my own, surf fishing, away from the swimming beach, I had admired the ease with which large sharks ride the waves to scoop up the sand crabs that move within them while staying out of sight of the gulls.
The sharks would be in such shallow water that I felt I could just grab one by the tail, and heave it onto the beach. I waited for them to strand themselves, but they never did. They swim gracefully, effortlessly. Even in shallow water, humans would have no chance with them, I reasoned.
This brings me to the summer of 1980, when I was in such water, and the shark approached.
I did exactly what I was taught. I socked him as hard as I could.
The shark backed off.
There is one more thing. After leaving those two beach summers behind, I don’t think I have swum in the ocean ever since. However, that did not stop the shark dreams I had occasionally for several years thereafter.
I once punched a lab technician, Harriet, from the UW forestry school. Three of us had been asleep in our sleeping bags in a small tent on a field trip in the Cascade Range, exactly where I do not now recall.
After being hit, Harriet was quiet. She didn’t say a thing.
In the morning, I asked her about it.
“Harriet, did I sock you in the night?”
“Yes,” she said with a weak smile. “Really hard.”
- Common large Virginia sharks are 8-12 feet in length. The two-finned shark was probably a smooth dogfish. They reach five feet in length (Virginia Institute of Marine Science).
The International Shark Attack file (Univ. Florida) lists five attacks on Virginia beaches since 1852. So while they are possible, they are rare.