The Most Frightening Animal on Earth

book chapter from Closer To Shore by Michael Capuzzo

Fortunately for everything else that swam, the great white grew slowly. Its body stiffened along three parallel muscles that ran from snout to tail. With the new bulk came a decline in speed, and the shark’s narrow teeth, once ideal for snaring fish, broadened out so that catching small fish grew almost impossible. Adaptation was not difficult. The shark’s size and strength were enormous advantages now, and its speed still remarkable for its size.

Like an infant child, the shark’s head had rapidly achieved adult size, expanding massively. Twenty-six teeth bristled along its top jaw, twenty-four along the bottom jaw. Behind these functional teeth, under the gum, lay successive rows of additional teeth, baby teeth that were softer but quickly grew and calcified. Every two weeks or so, the entire double row of fifty functional teeth simply rolled over the jaw and fell out, and a completely new set of fifty rose in its place. White and new, strong and serrated. Broken or worn teeth were not an issue of the apex predator.

Little is known about the shark’s appetite, except it was enormous, and like a man who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, the fish gorged itself. The waters of the subtropics, off southern Florida, had lured the shark that winter, emerald shallows crowded with prey. As the shark grew, its appetite shifted from small, cold-blooded fish to large, warm-blooded creatures, luscious with blubber and fat, rich with the oil that it would store in its liver for long periods to prevent starvation. It was a lesson in survival, and the shark was survival’s star pupil.

With quick thrusts of its dorsal fin, the shark plunged to the bottom of the ocean, huge eyes widening to absorb light from the gloom. On the surface it tore great hunks of blubber from the carcasses of whales. It was capable of astonishing leaps out of the water, rocketing almost vertically to the surface, the huge fish hanging in midair, oyster-black top and glistening white bottom separated by a ragged line, like a child’s charcoal drawing, unusually small triangular teeth set in a crude pointed snout, and round, fist-sized, expressionless black eyes.

The shark was designed hydrodynamically, and with its new bulk it moved with the majesty of a Boeing 747, master of the seas. After eight years, the shark had nearly doubled in size–to almost eight feet, and more than three hundred pounds. It remained years away from sexual maturity, less than half grown. It was a shadow of the nearly twenty-foot goliath that would bite big sea turtles cleanly in two, shell and all–it was merely a juvenile. Yet already it was as close to invincible as a living thing can be.

The shark knew, instinctively, not to fear the behemoth shadows of the blue whale–the largest creature in the sea–who had somehow bypassed the laws of scale of predation and grazed on plankton and plantlike krill. There was nothing to fear, either, from fifteen-foot tiger sharks, formidable man-eaters that attacked almost everything else. Already the shark was larger or more powerful than almost anything else in the sea; it was, according to Harvard naturalist E.O. Wilson, “with the saltwater crocodile and Sundarbans tiger the last expert predator of man still living free…by all odds the most frightening animal on Earth, swift, relentless, mysterious, and unpredictable.”

Only two creatures in the sea, scientists believe, would be emboldened to attack a seven- or eight-foot great white aside from another, much larger, great white. The first is speculative, but ichthyologists believe the huge sperm whale, armed with impressive teeth and already documented as an attacker of the giant megamouth shark, must also seize great whites from time to time. The second attacker of great whites does so rarely, it is believe, but an attack is documented. In October 1997, veteran biologist Peter Pyle was riding his seventeen-foot shark research whaler near California’s Farallon Islands when he witnessed “a very amazing sight…[an] orca with a ten-foot white shark in its mouth.” Two female killer whales–the smallest one twelve to fifteen feet long–had been seen killing and eating a sea lion when apparently the white shark investigated and was not welcome. An hour later, the orca was seen pushing the shark along as it writhed in its mouth. But the orca did not consume the white. Instead the whale eventually dropped the eviscerated shark and it sank, while gulls began a “feeding frenzy on the liver and other bits of the shark floating to the surface.”

Yet the juvenile shark cruising in the subtropics knew no natural enemies and felt no fear. Perhaps it felt something resembling curiosity, or excitement, as it searched ceaselessly for appropriate prey, but not fear. The great white sliced through the cool, shallow waters of southeastern Florida with princely arrogance that winter. Amberjacks, dolphins, other sharks, and small whales fled its approach or died swiftly for their mistake.

In the late spring the shark was swimming slowly several miles off the coast of southeast Florida, somewhere between the Keys and West Palm Beach, when it was seized by a current much warmer than its liking. The shark resisted, but the current was unimaginably powerful, a mighty river that swept the shark away from the shallow, familiar coast. The force of billions and billions of gallons of water tumbling with trillions upon trillions of tons of plankton and algae and uncountable fish–wahoo, tunas, dolphins, sailfish, blue marlins, and flyingfishes–bore the shark away from shore. The current was miles wide and rich with prey, but the water was uncomfortably warm and deeper than it liked, and in this new environment the juvenile began to struggle. The young shark coursed through the rushing water, stalking yet somehow unable to kill or eat. The shark was not engineered to know fear, but perhaps for the first time in its life it experienced prolonged failure, failure leading to hunger. The shark was still formidable and could sustain itself without food for days. It battled the current, but the current whipped along like moving walls, providing the shark yet another alien experience–powerlessness. As it swam and tried to adjust to this new environment and grew hungry, the Gulf Stream, warm and wide and inescapable, carried the shark north.

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