As I approached my grandparents place in Florida, after yet another bracing walk of 10,000 steps for WaterAid, I noticed a crowd surrounding the local Beach Rat. I call him "Beach Rat" with affection – B.R. runs the rentals in front of the complex. He rents out chairs and jet skis, tells crazy stories and amuses the tourists by sticking live sand fleas in his mouth. He doesn't eat them - that's the best place to keep them alive till he can use them as fish bait. As Beach Rat eloquently said himself with a crawling critter in his mouth, "Where es I spose ta kep im?" He’s tan like an old mans loafer, speaks in a thick southern drawl (when mouth not filled with vermin), and has a mop of bleach blonde curls sprouting from his head.
Beach Rat was enjoying the crowd, figuring he was doing the sand flea trick I ventured close to see what was up.No sand flea, instead B.R. had a two-foot long baby shark writhing in his hand. I sprinted up to the crowd and addressed B.R. directly since we had been talking sand fleas and my crazy long walks the day before.
“That is so cool.”I noticed a trickle of blood in the corner of the sharks mouth from the hook - not so cool. “You’re going to throw him back right?” The little shark gasped and swung its head from side to side mimicking the swimming motion that would have normally passed water through his gills. (P.S. I knew it was a boy thanks to the Discovery Channel.)
“Are you mental?!” Beach Rat cackled, “These are good eating.” My jaw dropped - I know it did because I felt it pop.The next sounds out of my mouth were two octaves higher. “You can’t! They’re endangered! He’s a baby.There is nothing on him to eat.”
“Babies are the best eating.” B.R. responded with a grin. The shark gasped and twitched.I think some twisted maternal instinct kicked in because my voice shot up to a register I didn’t know it could reach. At the sound of my screeching the crowd collectively took a step back.
“Oh my God you can’t. Please. Please put him back.”I clasped my hands in front of me.
“Lady, this is a baby bull shark.It’s just gonna grow up and bite someone in the ass.”
He was wrong.In a split second I knew he was wrong.In elementary school I was obsessed with sharks and wanted to be the next Eugenie Clark*.I checked out all the shark books from the library several times, religiously watched Shark Week, and had a Jaws birthday cake in the 4th grade.
“No you’re wrong.Look he has whiskers, and the tail is flat!Look at him! It’s not a bull shark it’s a…n-n-n-n-n-n…” Damn stutter.
At the same time Beach Rat flipped the tiny and clearly exhausted shark over.
“You’re right.It’s a nurse shark.”
“Now can I please put him back? Please!” and appealing to the fact that Beach Rat was above all else a southern gentleman I added, “It would be the biggest thrill of my vacation and maybe even my life if you let me put him back.”
“Yes.” I nodded my head, clasped my hands, and hopped from one foot to the other in desperation. By this point the crowd had left as they had instinctively sensed insanity.
“Hold him behind the pecks firmly and take the tail.” He placed the shark in my hand.I couldn’t believe it.I was holding a shark. He was silvery in color, felt like fine-grained sand paper, and was solid muscle. I had never dreamed of my wedding as a child, but I had dreamed of adventures, travel, and being Dr. Eugenie Clark. For this one moment I was her and no one had a freakin' camera.
The sharp dorsal fin brushed my hand and woke me up. I took off running for the water thinking that this would be the worse day ever if I put the baby shark in and he floated to the surface.He had been out of the water for a while. Was there any chance he could survive?
I waded out to two feet deep. Braced myself for his tail to slash at me as he sprinted away and plunged him into the water. I gently pushed him forward trying to get some water past his gills.His tail glided back and forth and it two small swishes he slowly moved out of my hands and coasted away.His silver color blended perfectly with the bottom.I would have never seen him if we had been swimming next to each other.
I sat down in the water and watched him disappear. Mentally, I sent tiny shark a message, “Little Baby Shark please inform your big cousins that there is a very nice, very pale woman who likes to get in the ocean. Please tell them to leave her in peace. Thanks.”