In Post Captain, the second of Patrick O'Brian's twenty volumes of nautical Napoleonic adventure, a trepidatious Stephen Maturin points to a shark as he and his friend Jack Aubrey are swimming in southern seas. Maturin is decidedly a creature of the land, the Irish-Catalan surgeon and spy, and a great natural philosopher endlessly curious about the species he finds in his travels with the Royal Navy. Aubrey, of course, is a man of the sea, living in wooden hulls from an early age and entirely at home with salt and tide and weather. And he is entirely dismissive of the shark that stirs the fears of Maturin, who in other instances in the series proves himself a fearless killer.
"Him?," says Aubrey. "Oh, sharks are mostly gammon, you know: all cry and no wool."
No wool indeed. Last year, there were four fatal shark attacks worldwide, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Four. And only 59 confirmed unprovoked attacks of human beings by sharks, around the world. Yet, each year the hype of Discovery's Shark Week throws more blood in the water and continues to position the shark as man's deadliest enemy at sea.
Lightning kills far more people than sharks; there have been 27 deaths this year in the United States alone, and many hundreds of injuries. If sharks had killed 27 Americans this year, you can only imagine the wall-to-wall media coverage we'd all be submerged under.
The truth is, grisly and dramatic death in the jaws of an oceanic killer is just scarier than the more common demise from a bolt from above. I think it's because when we swim in the sea, we're conscious of entering a huge domain that is inherently not our own.
Last week on our out island adventure, I had no opportunity to Google for shark attack statistics or lightning deaths; I couldn't ask the Twitterverse, either. Blackberries and iPhones were strictly banned. Like the rest of the crew, I just had to get along and face my fears. And of the two, lightning's always been the scarier. And on the first day of the encampment, we had plenty; the southern tip of a tropical depression that slammed Tampa whipped across Munson Island for a few hours with plenty of bang and flash.
My lightning-phobia is well known to family and friends. I think it stems from the random violence of it all; I don't think I'd do particularly well in an artillery bombardment, either. And there were the incidences in childhood: the house set afire (soon doused by rain), the television set that blew in a cloud of gray smoke, the surfer we knew down at the shore who was killed walking off the beach. Random violence from the sky. Yet, there we were - there I was - outside, under dark skies with lightning crashing around the island.
Out on the reef, the sight of the shark - an the sure knowledge that there were plenty around - simply didn't raise any alarms. Part of it was the Aubrey-like assurance of our guides. Sharks simply didn't pose much danger. And part of it was that Maturin-like inquisitiveness. I wanted to see a shark. As we dove on Looe Key - the third-most dived site in the world -the underwater world above the coral was stunning. My son and I saw a three-foot barracuda slip past just a few feet away. And when my diving partner Ben signaled to me that he'd seen a big shark, I turned a saw the back-end gliding by, its huge caudal fin moving like a tropical fan. Perhaps an 11- or 12-foot reef shark. And the only shark I saw, except for the three-foot nurse shark I paddled by in the ocean kayak.
And while it was an electrifying moment for this nautical novice, it wasn't particularly scary. We'd been out to the floating docks (walking through neck-deep water) to fish for sharks earlier in the week, using chum to salt the waters. Nary a bite, but there were a few jokes as we jumped into the chum slick to walk back to shore. And there was the near-blind night dive as well, with occasional Benchley-like thoughts of evening attacks. In truth, we were always in the water - and the water in the Florida Keys is home to many sharks.
But the last confirmed fatal shark attack in the Keys happened in 1952, and researchers have counted only unprovoked shark attacks there since 1882. So it's rare, indeed. After we saw the shark on Looe Key, we took a break in the beautiful 50-foot dive boat owned by the scouts. The boys ran through an hour of diving and jumping contests from the boat. Then we put the gear back on and went for a second look at the coral and all the colorful fish.The diving spot got its name from the HMS Looe which ran aground there in 1744 while towing a captured French ship, the Snow. We didn't see any sharks or shipwrecks, just yellowtail, angelfish, parrotfish, barracuda, and sergeant majors - all in a world that's not our own.