Totems: Shark, Part 3
by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman
Even if you’re not into “shark week” you might be interested to know what the fastest shark is, or the largest, or about their distinctive characteristics. I won’t keep you in suspense. Shaped like a jet plane, the fastest shark is the Shortfin Mako, so it can catch such fast fish as tuna and swordfish. The Whale Shark is the largest fish in the world (as much as 50,000 pounds, and up to 40 feet long - bigger than a bus). The smallest (Pygmy) fits in a human palm. If shark is your totem, or you have a fascination for the species, you may wish to examine the various kinds. Depending on your source of information, there are anywhere from 350 to 540 species of sharks. That’s approximate, not only because the figure is indefinite, but also because new species are being discovered all the time.
Out of any species, I think sharks have the most descriptive names. There are Dwarf sharks, Lemon sharks, Blue, Bull, Basking, Nurse, Zebra, Leopard, Tiger, Goblin, and Wobbegong sharks. There’s even an Angel shark.
Cookiecutter sharks got their name by taking round cookie-shaped bites out of the bodies of whales, dolphins and seals.
Mako sharks are feared hunters. They are most aggressive at night. The Shortfin Mako shark swims 30-50 m.p.h.
East Coast Granders come up from beneath and tear their prey apart. Over 1,000 pounds and around 11 feet long, they bulk up on seals.
Black-tipped sharks are masters of teamwork. Anchovies migrate in the millions to the tip of South Africa. They can slip right by individual sharks, but these sharks work in concert to herd the anchovies – then attack, cutting off any escape routes. As quickly as they came, the sharks disappear into the deep blue.
The Thresher shark stuns its prey with a tail fin that is as long as its body.
Bull sharks are known for their aggressive and unpredictable behavior. They have been known to travel hundreds of miles up freshwater rivers, though their natural habitat is the ocean.
Dr. David Gruber has invented a “shark vision” camera that works like a Swell shark’s eyes at night, replicating moonlight. The Swell shark glows in the dark. The protein that makes it glow is being used in cancer and Alzheimer’s research – another way sharks contribute to humanity.
In the 19th Century, Spiny Dogfish oil was used as a lubricant for its Vitamin A content, for lighting (considered superior to whale oil) and for tanning leather. Its skin was used as an abrasive. Naturally, the native tribes of the area had been using the oil and skin for centuries.
Off the Florida coastline, Hammerhead sharks rule. Some that are 16’ long and more than 1600 pounds have been caught. Legends abound about a massive shark first spotted during WWII, named “Old Hitler.” Since hammerheads go back and forth between Florida and Bimini, some feel that Old Hitler is the same shark they call the “Harbor Master” in Bimini. Reports of it being 24 feet long are common. Hammerheads are the only species completely unafraid of humans. The unique shape of their heads and the position of their eyes affords them an almost 360° view. They are said to have the greatest sensitivity to the electrical impulses given off by all living creatures.
Like elephants, their land counterparts, and whales, their namesake, huge Whale sharks are mostly peaceful. They are filter-feeders that use their teeth to gather in plankton and small fish. Since they can live to 100, they don’t even start to reproduce until they are 30. No biological clock ticking there! There’s a place in the Philippines where large masses of plankton are found, where the river meets the bay. Mangrove trees keep the river clean and release nutrients into the water. The nutrients feed bioluminescent plankton. Whale sharks gather in large numbers, because of the plankton … altogether a healthy ecosystem.
A new species with huge jaws was discovered in 1976. Megamouth is considered the rarest shark. It’s also a filter-feeder, like its cousin the Whale shark.
Talk about a contradiction - the shark you may know as the Angel shark is also known as “sand devil” because it buries itself in the sand until prey swims over, and then … well, you know what happens.
The Great White shark is the ultimate predator. Off the Farallon Islands, just 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, one can find some of the biggest Whites in the world. Why are they there? In the autumn of each year, they come to hunt elephant seals – that’s 2000 lbs. of pinniped, thank you. Pinnipeds are marine mammals that have front and rear flippers. This group includes seals, sea lions, and walruses. Explosions of sardines, anchovies, and plankton create food for seals, which in turn attract Great Whites; however, some Great Whites are travelling where they haven’t before - north from the density of the Farallon Islands to avoid the food competition around San Francisco. They go to the Pacific NW as far north as Oregon. Why go north a thousand miles off course, into the frigid waters of the Oregon coast? The payoff has to be the high-calorie elephant seals.
Are you a person who recognizes opportunities and implements the resources to take advantage of them? Opportunistic and intelligent, sharks have learned to hunt at night, when seals are less able to see them and may let their guard down. On Seal Island, at the southern tip of South Africa, the seals leave the island for nighttime feeding. In the waters around the island, the seals are under siege 24/7. Though prime habitat for seals, the price of living on this tiny rock island is constant stress.
The Great White’s ultimate habitat is Guadalupe Island in Mexico, 220 miles off the coast of San Diego. Elephant seals travel between 11,000 to13,000 miles annually, finally gathering on the island. Whites hide in the abyss, waiting....
Unlike other sharks, Great Whites are warm-blooded. Their internal core temperature is between 70-80 degrees. Since they require food with a high fat content, they will swim away if the prey doesn’t suit their taste buds. Though they will not hesitate to take a bite out of a human, they probably won’t eat one because they don’t like the taste. Great whites would never need a dentist. Pilot fish eat Great White’s parasites, and also clean their teeth.
Considered possibly the most aggressive, the Tiger shark weighs in heavy. In 1964, a Tiger shark weighing 1,780 pounds was captured off the coast of South Carolina. Along with Great Whites, and Bull sharks, Tiger Sharks will attack a human unprovoked. Just as fierce as a Great White, a tiger shark has 48 teeth. All 48 are serrated and strong enough to rip through metal. They are known as the “garbage cans of the ocean” because they literally eat almost anything. Really - tires, plastic bottles, license plates, video cameras, and even a horse’s head have been found in their stomachs.
Atlantic Tiger sharks congregate at a shallow beach (average depth 17 feet) in a little bay in the Grand Bahamas, named Tiger beach. Since Tigers normally swim as deep as 2700 feet, what attracts them? Scientists believe that since both male and female Tiger sharks are there in large numbers, they are there to mate. It’s like a pickup bar and maternity ward in one. Female Tigers have a 14-16 month gestation period, and carry between 10 and 80 pups per litter. That may be one of the reasons they only mate every three years… that, and the brutal mating practices. I saw a film of two males biting and holding down a female’s head, so one of them could mate with her. For humans, the Medicine might be to temper sensuality with deep awareness and consideration of a partner’s needs.
No matter how you slice it, sharks are aggressive. Those with this power animal will have to learn how to channel their aggression positively. Even if shark is not your particular totem, we all feel aggression at times. There is no malice in shark’s aggression. Aggression in itself is not wrong or bad. It prompts us to become alert; to get going. How we handle and redirect that aggression is what counts. When we come to that fork in the road, we have to decide how to express ourselves. We can go into deep woods to scream and drum (on a pot if you don’t have a drum), or pound a branch on the ground. Go ahead; you won’t hurt the Mother. She uses all that anger and aggression as fertilizer to make beautiful things grow.
We can also use art form to express emotion. It’s the container in which our anger, negativity, and disappointment expresses itself in a constructive way. Have you ever been an actor in a play? Preparing and acting the part takes all one’s creative juices. Focus is intense, and many stay in character for the entire run. There’s nothing left over for negativity. Writing is the same way. If you’re writing a novel, you get inside your characters. If it’s poetry, you get to plumb your feelings. Drama is the form for expressing conflict. Writing/playing/singing music, drawing, painting, sculpting, choreography, architecture, constructing, or gardening – they all absorb our creative faculties, as we produce something that makes us creators.
Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 40 years; author of this column for 16 years. For Healing for you or your animal, Training, or her Book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org