Here’s a great idea: Seal-shaped man swims with sharks

Not long ago, my wife and I decided we’d spend April school vacation in Florida, so that my stepchildren could spend time with their Nana, and so that I could sunburn my pale carcass and lie around on the beach.

An angler prepares to release a small shark -- likely a bonnethead -- on a beach in Florida recently. (BDN photo by John Holyoke)

An angler prepares to release a small shark — likely a bonnethead — on a beach in Florida recently. (BDN photo by John Holyoke)

Maybe she didn’t pitch the idea exactly like that. But right after the “Nana” part, that’s what I heard. “House on the beach!” my inner, husband-y voice shouted. “Fun! Sun! Surf! Sign me up!”

After the winter we’ve endured, and the spring that has refused to show up in earnest, I think I can be forgiven for focusing on the fun-and-sun aspect of our impending trip. (Sorry, Nana … but I loved seeing you, too!)

But at some point in our planning process — after we’d put down a deposit on the beach house we rented, and after I started comparing prices on body boards, swim trunks and sunscreen — Karen and I sat down to discuss our plans.

“It’s a beautiful beach,” she might have said. “It’s not far from my mom’s house, and she can come over and stay … but there is one thing.”

As it turns out, this “one thing” was pretty big. As in, “You might have mentioned this to me before I got all excited about frolicking around in the water,” big.

“Um … the beach we’re going to? Some people call it the ‘shark bite capital of the world,’” my wife said.

Now, let me explain a little bit about me and sharks.

First, I was a kid when “Jaws” came out. And I wasn’t allowed to see it because my mom realized that I would likely freak out and never step foot in the water again.

Second, while I’m fascinated by sharks, my knowledge of the toothy critters is limited, in an “I saw it on ‘Shark Week,’ so it must be true” kind of way.

And here’s what I have learned by watching “Shark Week” offerings on TV over the last several years: Sharks are predictable in one important way: They love to eat seals.

In fact, you don’t even have to be a seal to attract a shark — especially the really big, man-eating kind. You just have to look vaguely like a seal.

Among the things that I have learned look like a seal and are sometimes inadvertently munched: Body boarders (oops … I’d planned on body-boarding) … and pale, chubby  outdoor writers from Maine.

I might have made up that last part. But the first part? Absolutely true (at least, according to my “Shark Week” research).

For a while, the whole “shark bite capital of the world” thing put a little wrinkle into my vacation plans. Eventually, I got over my unease (more or less).

Not that I stopped scanning the horizon for fins, of course. In fact, on our first morning in Shark Bite Town, while sipping my morning coffee on the deck, I had a bit of a Police Chief Martin Brody moment when I spied two fins a hundred yards offshore.

“Get out of the water!” I wanted to yell, just like Brody had in that movie I was never allowed to watch. “Sharks!” I wanted to scream.

And I might have done just that … had there actually been anyone in the water, and had the fins belonged to actual sharks.

As it turns out, the finned beasts were dolphins, which stopped by nearly every morning after that to fish, leap and surf the waves.

“Hmm,” I eventually thought. “If there were man-eating sharks out there, the dolphins probably wouldn’t seem nearly as comfortable as they are.”

And my musing made sense (in a “I never heard anything about sharks eating dolphins on ‘Shark Week,’ but I’m sure they must do just that” kind of way.)

Thus emboldened, I began to wade in the waves. I tried my hand at body-boarding. I even went into the water up to my waist.

That, despite a couple of exchanges with surf-casters who spent their days trying to catch fish nearby.

“Look at this one,” one angler said, showing off a real, live shark that he had just caught. “I think it’s a hammerhead, but it’s a small one.”

Another onlooker correctly identified the shark as a bonnethead — the existence of which was another thing I’d never learned on “Shark Week” — which was about a foot long.

Later in the week, another angler fishing just a hundred yards from my body-boarding grounds told me that he’d had days when he couldn’t keep the sharks off his line.

“But they’re only about 5 feet long,” he told me, perhaps in order to drive me away from his fishing grounds. “They won’t usually bother you … much.”

Unless, that is, you look like a seal. Or a pale, chubby outdoor writer from Maine.

John Holyoke can be reached at or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.