A Shark Story

I’ve spent a lot of time near the beach in several parts of California.  I’m not a surfer, but I’ve met a few surfers and I’ve admired others from the shore.

I’ve also read news reports.  Surfing culture is big in Australia, and there is at least one beach outside Sydney that is described as “sharky.”  This doesn’t stop local surfers, and I’m not sure that it should.

My aunt is a dedicated scuba diver who encouraged me to get my own certification.  After I had done so, she sent me an internet link to a dive magazine.  One of the stories in the publication was about “shark diving.”  I told my aunt that I probably wouldn’t be signing up for shark dives.

The Why

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I swam laps at the pool at my university’s aquatic center.  The pool was magnificent, 50 meters long and set on a hill overlooking greater Los Angeles.

A few times that first autumn, as I waited in line for the pool to open on Saturday mornings, I talked with another graduate student named Tammy.  She was in some sort of public health program.  Her plan was to complete her degree and work for a non-profit in Africa.

“She wanted to help people,” her mother was reported to have said in a newspaper report after Tammy died.

What happened to Tammy was this:  She and her boyfriend went out in two kayaks one November morning and never came back.

Pieces of their kayaks washed ashore and, later, body parts were recovered as well.

Tammy and her boyfriend had done nothing wrong, but they were unlucky.

As they paddled, their course coincided with that of a shark that may have been very hungry or just unusually aggressive.

The shark’s bites broke up each of the kayaks, which washed ashore.  Investigators later retrieved some body parts from one kayaker but none from the other — I forget which, not that it matters. Both were killed.

This happens, but only very rarely.  Tammy and her boyfriend were not reckless.  There had been no reports of shark attacks in the area in the year before their incident.  Like winning the lottery, the shark encounter was an extremely improbable event that came up without warning.


To my regret, I never made the effort to find Tammy’s mother.  I should have let her know that, even in my few conversations with her daughter, I had come to respect and admire her.  To say that Tammy’s death was a loss to us all.

It wouldn’t have been difficult.  I could have traced the woman’s name, or I could have hounded the newspaper reporter who filed the very brief story about Tammy’s death.

I was busy at the time — taking difficult courses and working part-time to cover the rent.  I may have used this rationalization to justify my inaction.  Or maybe I dreaded facing the extent of Tammy’s mother’s pain.

Many years have gone by, and I have taken a single lesson from this incident.

The lesson is not to avoid, or even worry about, sharks in the ocean.

It is to offer solace to the grieving. To tell the families of the dead that their loved ones will be remembered.  That their lives mattered.

There are sharks everywhere — in the water, on the streets, lurking in our bodies.  The most basic fact of human existence is that eventually every one of us will meet a hungry shark.

All we can do is comfort each other.

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