Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Swimming With The Sharks

Travelling around the world over the years, producing videos for the Biblical Museum of Natural History, I've been blessed to experience a wide range of extraordinary encounters with exotic creatures. I've cuddled basilisks and beluga whales, koalas and kangaroos, walruses and wombats. I've been bitten by lions and pounced upon by leopards. I've flown hawks, eagles and vultures to my hand. I've petted penguins and platypuses. I've wrestled alligators and giant pythons. I've taken a floatplane to watch bears in Alaska, driven among huge herds of bison in Wyoming, ridden elephants in Zambia, and sailed down crocodile- and hippo-infested rivers in Botswana. But I've never had such an extraordinary, entirely uncontrolled wild encounter as I had this week, just an hour and a half's drive from my home.

It's all due to a decidedly environmentally unfriendly facility, Israel's largest power station, situated in the coastal town of Hadera. A byproduct of the facility is that very hot water gushes into the ocean. And for reasons not entirely clear to scientists, this is a magnet for sharks. (In case you're wondering, there's no radiation-mutated sharks; it's a coal-powered station, not a nuclear power station.)

Around forty to eighty sharks gather around the power station between the months of November and May. There are two species: sandbar sharks and dusky sharks. Sandbar sharks reach around eight feet in length and are not known to attack humans. Dusky sharks, on the other hand, reach fourteen feet in length and weigh up to 750 pounds. They are listed by the International Shark Attack file as being responsible for six attacks on people and boats, three of them unprovoked and one fatal.

Still, on the scale of things, that isn't very much. There's more to fear from people who text while driving. I have friends, including a shark scientist on the advisory board of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, who swim with sharks. And so how could I miss such an opportunity?

I parked by the power station, where there was easy access to the beach. There were already a number of shark enthusiasts in the water. As I waded into the sea, up to my chest, I couldn't help but hear the "dum-dum-DUM-dum" Jaws music in my head. I was nervously looking around, searching for the tell-tale dorsal fin slicing through the water. 

Suddenly I heard a shriek, and someone called "Get your camera!" I turned to see the woman who had shrieked rapidly making her way towards me in the water. My heart raced.

The woman screamed out, "Oh my God! It's Rabbi Slifkin! The Zoo Rabbi! Can I take a photo of you with my father? He's such a fan!"

Well, that wasn't what I was expecting.

After dutifully posing with her father for a photo, I turned my attention back to searching for sharks. It didn't take long. There were several large sharks, around eight to twelve feet long, swimming around. Every so often, they would swim right around me, close enough to touch. Sometimes their tails would be partially out of the water, slapping at me as they made their way around my body. And sometimes they would raise their entire head out of the water, in a classic Jaws pose.

I must admit that I wasn't scared in the slightest. This is not because I'm not a fearful person - I very much am, and I'm also a terrible swimmer. However, I seem to have a blind spot when it comes to wild animals. I even forgot to take the basic safety precaution of keeping my fists clenched to conceal my fingernails (which reflect light and look like fish scales, thus tempting fate). The experience was so incredible, so magical, that it just didn't occur to me to be afraid.

Drone photo of me by Brian Spector
But as I took in the remarkable situation around me, with around twenty of us swimming among all these sharks, it became clear that it cannot continue. There is simply too much risk of harm befalling either people or sharks (which are endangered). Indeed, there was one woman on a paddleboard who got knocked off by a shark, and she fell right on top of the shark, which thrashed furiously. And there were other people who seemed to be trying to hand-feed the sharks, which is certainly a recipe for disaster. There was an officer from the Nature & Parks Authority trying to prevent people from acting rashly, but this can be a difficult task with Israelis!

And so it came as no surprise when, the next day, the authorities announced that there will be no more swimming with sharks. The Hadera municipality is closing that area to swimmers. It's probably for the best, though it is indeed a pity that this magical experience will no longer be available. After all, where else in the world can you go swimming with both sharks and zoorabbis?

GoPro photo of me by Brian Spector

Meanwhile, you can touch real (albeit not live) sharks at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! We have stuffed baby sharks (Doo-Doo-Be-Doo) of different species, as well as the teeth-studded jaws of several large sharks, including a whale shark, that you can touch. You can place your head inside those rows of teeth for an awesome photo - and you might even get to see a real live zoorabbi - but I'd prefer not to be touched.

(Thanks to those who joined our expedition and contributed their photos and video - Eli Berkovits, Ari Ellen, Brian Spector, Chaim Rutenberg, and Bengineer. Video coming soon!)


39 comments:

  1. RNS you are one brave Rabbi ! I love animals including Sharks and it breaks my heart to observe mankind’s destruction of the beasts of the field and waters. I’m a chicken though. BTW Is that Lion a taxidermy ?

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  2. There is no doubt that swimming with sharks is a magical experience and as a marine biologist I've done it quite a number of times, but always under controlled and sensible conditions. With but a basic understanding of wild animal behavior anyone can see that having any large wild animal surrounded by people with limited avenues to escape, is a very clear recipe for an attack. I have no doubt that a shark bite on a person will occur in Israel of these days (if not this year, maybe next year), and when it does happen, there will be loud calls and public pressure to kill off the sharks. I'd hate to see anyone hurt by a shark but this kind of behavior and lack or respect for the power of the sharks, invites bites. Those who love wildlife should be the last to put the sharks in such danger.

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    1. Portugal sees the most sharks year. As a result, their beaches have a wall separating sharks from humans. We don't have to kill them if we do it like Spain does.

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  3. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...; BTW Sea, even the Jewish sharks are returning to Israel. ACJA

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  4. RNS - Remember that you can not eat Sharks, but Sharks have no law that they are forbidden from eating you. I wish the whole world adopted the Jewish law to not to eat non kosher fish for then the Sharks may survive. For those religious who think they are missing something by avoiding shellfish and the like, IMHO you are not. I had most of them and really do not care for them at all. IMHO Kosher fish taste better and AFAIK are not bottom dwelling sh-t eating scavengers. Sorry for the several posts, but this RNS post really has personal meaning to me since I love Sharks. ACJA

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    1. "AFAIK". You can add these kosher fish to your list of bottom dwelling "sh-t" eaters: carp, sole, halibut, flounder, cod, and bass.

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    2. I hate sharks. Not in a bad way, but I'm certainly afraid of them and never want to meet them in real life. For me, the kosher rule works both ways. A sort of karma. If I don't eat sharks maybe they won't eat me.

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    3. @zdub, well said. The "bottom feeder" theory of kosher fish is completely contradicted by the facts.

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  5. No wonder some people think there is something fishy about RNS. ACJA

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    1. I would never swim with sharks on that beach. There's something fishy about it.

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  6. RNS noticed you are wearing a cap. But is this required when swimming ? ACJA

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  7. If you've been bitten by lions and pounced on by leopards, most people would interpret that as an unsubtle hint that you haven't had adequate regard to your welfare or the welfare of large feline apex predators. They really are not psychologically or physiologically the same as a household cat.

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  8. Neat story!

    Minor quibble: you note that the water is from a coal-powered plant, and therefore not radioactive. But you should know that while nuclear power plants also dump hot water to waterways, that water is not radioactive, as it doesn't come into direct contact with the nuclear fuel rods.

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  9. Big gomel bentching coming up...

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  10. Great piece! Worth getting it printed.

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  11. Coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste.

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste/

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    Replies
    1. I don't think they throw the ashes into the sea.

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  12. I have nothing significant to add. I have been posting for decades as LionofZion and I think it is appropriate considering your photo.

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  13. You are very brace sir. I could never do that. One of my biggest fears are sharks. Thank you for sharing your magical experience with them.

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  14. I wonder if you regret not studying zoology formally in school.

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  15. To those who swim with sharks
    "שומר פתאים ה".

    I guess it's safer to swim with sharks than not wearing mask....

    Gotta love "scientific hypocrisy".....

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    1. Not wearing a mask hurts the entire society, not just the individual.

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    2. I had the exact same thought. He lectures anyone who'll listen to him about the "dangers" of not wearing a mask, yet has no problem swimming with sharks, and waxes poetic about the twenty idiots in the water with him. Hypocrite.

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    3. @Samuel D

      Influenza is estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of people per year, globally. I'm curious if you or Rabbi Slifkin perpetually wore masks before March of 2020 to prevent harming the entirety of society? And in addition, do you pledge to continue to perpetually wear a mask for the rest of your life, for the greater good of society?

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    4. Not wearing a mask is selfish to everyone else.

      Obvious distinction really.

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    5. The "not wearing a mask hurts others" distinction is true, but anybody who made the additional argument: "people who are not careful and then get sick are selfish because they are using up society's scarce healthcare resources" should not be swimming with sharks.

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    6. If you aware of the specific species and the specific eating habits, then yeah, you can swim with sharks safely. Don't make up silly comparisons.

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    7. "They are listed by the International Shark Attack file as being responsible for six attacks on people and boats, three of them unprovoked and one fatal...Still, on the scale of things, that isn't very much. There's more to fear from people who text while driving. I have friends, including a shark scientist on the advisory board of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, who swim with sharks."

      Sounds like a non-zero risk. And do we have a good understanding of how risky it is per exposure, compared to Covid? Certainly, saying "I have friends who swim with sharks, therefore it's safe" doesn't display a great understanding of the risks, whatever they are.

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    8. Also wearing surgical masks has been shown in a large randomised control trial to have no statistically significant impact on the outcomes for the wearer. Don't think the research has been done on shark bothering.

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    9. @MK

      Covid is MUCH more contagious than influenza. It is also MUCH deadlier, with more lasting long term health effects. Moreover, most influenza deaths are in the poorer parts of the world. For example the USA had 22,000 influenza deaths during the 2019-2020 flu season.

      On the other hand, if ppl DID always wear masks in public, no doubt all infectious disease infection rates would go down. I'm willing to do that. But at least for now it IS a societal obligation for everyone to wear masks in public.

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    10. And from 2018-2019, the estimate is 26,000 to 53,000 flu deaths in the USA, with 390,000 to 770,000 hospitalizations, while from 2017-2018, the estimate is 46,000 to 95,000 flu deaths with 620,000 to 1,400,000 hospitalizations. Why was it not selfish of you to not wear masks during this time? Do you have a specific number in mind that makes it morally justified to cause deaths and hospitalizations vs. selfish to cause deaths and hospitalizations? Or is it just when there is mass hysteria around an issue pushed by self-serving bureaucrats and a dishonest media?

      This is of course assuming that universal masks actually does anything significant to prevent deaths. But, in light of the Danish study referred to above, as well as dozens of graphs of COVID cases pre vs. post-mask mandates, color me skeptical.

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  16. This little story has been picked up in the media:
    https://phys.org/news/2021-04-sharks-israel-mediterranean-coast.html

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  17. You have such an exciting life! Thanks for sharing so we can live vicariously. Of course these seem pretty tame compared to the sharks who banned your books ;)

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  18. Jewish sharks? Which lawschool?:)

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  19. I have a soft spot for orcas. They're beautiful, waaaay smarter than sharks, and there's not a single recorded instance of an orca attacking a human.

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    1. NOT TRUE.....4 "known" fatalities, and counting....https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tilikum_(killer_whale)

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  20. Swimming with sharks is better than sleeping with fishes.

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