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.