Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Tooth, and Nothing But The Tooth

The Tooth, and Nothing But The Tooth
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2008

To commemorate the death of noted shark exploder Roy Scheider, and the movie that resulted in Erik never setting foot in the ocean again, we are reprinting this column from 2003.

Shark Experts 0, Sharks 1.

Noted shark expert, Dr. Erich Ritter, has said that he has never been bitten by a shark because he understands shark behavior. Ritter, the chief scientist for the Global Shark Attack File, part of the Shark Research Institute, has even said he can keep them away just by modifying his heart rate.

But you have to wonder about that after he was bitten by a 350 pound bull shark on April 10.

According to Marie Levine, executive director of the Shark Research Institute, Ritter was badly bitten by a shark in the Bahamas.

As she said this, male reporters grimaced and doubled over in sympathetic pain.

"No, no, the BAHAMAS," Levine said. "That little chain of islands off the East Coast of Florida."

She explained that Ritter was bitten on the calf in waist deep water off Walker's Cay, Bahamas, while filming the Discovery Channel's Shark Week 2003.

Shark Week is an educational series designed to help non-shark experts -- also called sane people -- understand shark behavior. And to make bratty kids mind their parents.

"See that shark, Timmy? Stop jumping on the couch, or it'll be hiding in your big boy potty."

Shark Week -- also known as "Dorks Who Swim In The Ocean Because They Have No Sense of Their Own Mortality" -- involves shark experts swimming with sharks, facing the very real possibility of being bitten in their Bahamas.

Ritter had invited the cable network to film his work with bull sharks (translation: I wanted to get on MTV's "Jackass" show, but I'm too old). He was working with lemon, black-tip, and bull sharks in murky water when he was bitten.

"It was a serious injury," said Levine, making me feel bad for that Bahamas joke. "He's going to be in the hospital for four or five more weeks."

The shark bit all the way to the bone of his left calf, sending Ritter into shock. He was flown to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, where he underwent an arterial graft, and may need a skin graft later.

Ritter, a professor at the University of Zurich and Hofstra University in New York, has said that most sharks will just bump an object in the water, and if the object is not prey, they'll move on. He believes that most shark attacks aren't really attacks, they're accidents.

No, running your car into another car is an accident. Being bitten by a shark is an attack, whether he meant it or not.

But "accident" is what Levine and other experts have been calling this. In Ritter's case, the bull shark was chasing a remora, and got confused in the murky water.

"There was food in the water about 15 yards from Erich. A bull shark closed on the remora but in the low visibility bit Erich instead," Levine said.

Dr. Sam Gruber, a shark expert from the University of Miami called it "an accident waiting to happen."

"(Ritter's) method is basically to titillate TV cameras," Gruber said in a Reuters news story. "He wants to impress people that he can control these sharks and they will never bite him." Gruber then began giggling uncontrollably and muttering, "heh heh, titillate, heh heh heh."

Ritter's injury comes on the heels of the media's near-obsession with shark attacks in 2001. Last year, there was a veritable media feeding frenzy about shark "accidents," including 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast who lost an arm to a bull shark in Florida, and Krishna Thompson, the guy who hired Johnny Cochrane (another shark) to sue Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort, after being attacked by a shark while swimming at the resort's beach.

Despite the international attention, experts say the 76 worldwide attacks were only an average year.

Oh good, as long as it was only an average year.

Look, modifying one's heart rate and understanding a shark's behavior is fine, but Ritter isn't Aquaman, and he can't communicate with sharks through aquatic telepathy. I may not know much about sharks, but even I'm expert enough to know I can't send out "don't bite me" vibes.

I'll admit, out of millions of beachgoers, the odds are slim-to-none that someone is going to be "accidented" by a shark. But you greatly increase your chances when you purposely play with sharks like they're some kind of pointy-toothed puppy.

They're sinister, cold-hearted, cold-blooded, ruthless eating machines who enjoy an occasional snack on shark experts, and people stupid enough to swim in the ocean when there are perfectly good swimming pools just a few hundred yards away.

That's why that music plays whenever they're around.

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