My ears instantly pricked up when on my recent Great White Shark expedition, I heard shark expert Andrew Fox declare ‘I’m on the lookout for one of the sharks that has a large tumour growing on his chin. I’m going to try to biopsy it. I’ve been aiming to do this for two years now.’ Given that I often describe Pink Tank Scuba as my ‘Scuba versus Tumour’ blog, the possibility of encountering a great white shark with a prominent tumour and the chance to film one of the world’s most unique biopsies held particular interest for me.
‘Santa’ is the first (and possibly the only) great white shark ever to have been documented with a tumour (photos above used with permission of Sam Cahir, http://www.predapix.com). I was on this trip to cross cage diving with great whites off my Big Critter Bucket List due to my own terminal prognosis; I hoped with all my heart that we would be able to find Santa on this trip to try to help him and other sharks by learning more about his condition and whether his tumour was malignant or benign.
As with all wild animal encounters, there was no guarantee that Santa would show up at all. But I could feel the anticipation rise and the hope that this unique mission might be a success as the large shark with the unmistakable tumour beard appeared through the murky water. He started to swim in slow circles around the cage we were in, twenty metres below the ocean’s surface (photo above used with permission of Andrew Fox). Maintaining a slight distance, I wondered whether the shark would dare to move close enough to the cage for Andrew to get a clear shot at the tumour with more than his camera.
Finally, after endless distant circles towards the cage then away again, Santa drew very close, putting the goal of the dive literally within arm’s reach. Andrew maintained absolute focus and nerves of steel as he exchanged his camera for a harpoon and exited the cage, his biopsy gun perfectly poised. His aim was exceptional; Santa flinched only slightly before disappearing into the distance, a decent-sized tumour sample having been successfully procured.
I feared that the shark would not return after whatever sting or fright he may have felt as the biopsy sample was taken from his chin. And a small part of me feared that if he did come back, he might be incensed by the indignity of the diagnostic interaction – would he transform into Speilberg’s monster, intent on destroying the cage and those of us inside it? ‘I’ve been there many times myself’, I reflected as I saw the shark’s powerful tail propel him away from the biopsy gun into the silty distance. I had been diagnosed with malignant tumours no less than four times in the past four years, leading directly to this very Bucket List expedition. I could not refrain from feeling some sort of strange empathy with this majestic creature, its body ravaged by cells that refused to die. His body hosted tumours that one day well might claim its life, as mine have been predicted to do. The sample Andrew had just collected would reveal whether the tumour was malignant or benign and might somehow be used by marine scientists to help this and other sharks.
When Santa reappeared through the silty mist, he bore no signs of resentment or malice. I wondered if he’d even registered the loss of the sample at all? Great whites are a far cry from the sadistic, fictitious movie monster that lurks in the murky depths of most people’s wildest imaginings. The ocean is their world – not ours – and when we enter their habitat there will inevitably be times when they mistake a surfer or swimmer for something that they would naturally eat, such as a turtle or a sea lion. Most evidence suggests that when such mistakes occur (wrongly termed ‘attacks’ by sensationalist media), the shark quickly rejects what they have wrongly tested with their teeth. Humans simply don’t have enough fat content to be natural prey for sharks. Some experts suggest that sharks simply don’t find the occasional, unplanned taste of people especially appealing which is why, with a small handful of devastating exceptions, most accidents involving sharks do not result in fatalities. As one shark expert recently pointed out, if sharks intended to hunt humans, more beach swimmers would be taken than not. In reality, incidents which are inevitably touted as ‘shark attacks’ are usually no more than the shark acting in self-defence, or an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.
When Santa disappeared then reappeared one final time with another great white in close proximity, they seemed as curious about the inhabitants of the metal cage as we were about them. I am deeply encouraged that human interest in these amazing creatures has a proven capacity to move beyond ill-founded fear and sensationalised revulsion. The commitment of Andrew Fox to securing a sample of Santa’s tumour for analysis speaks volumes about the level of respect, care, responsibility and understanding that humans must begin to develop in caring for our planet and all of its creatures, great and small. The time for us to abandon the ludicrous image of massive monsters maliciously prowling beaches to massacre unsuspecting men, women and children is long overdue. For all its time-tested, horror-infused entertainment value, Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ is nothing but clever fiction.
It was my absolute privilege to dive with Andrew on this historically significant dive and to witness and film this world exclusive biopsy of a great white shark’s tumour. My thoughts and best wishes are with Santa, as they would be with any creature facing the impact of a tumour growing on or in their bodies. It is a condition I am all too well acquainted with. It will be very interesting to learn the results of this biopsy, and to see what human scientists and shark experts will do with the information acquired in relation to Santa specifically and for the benefit of the species as a whole.
STOP THE PRESS: According to Andrew Fox, the results of the biopsy were inconclusive: “‘My take on it all is that its a very slow proliferative growth, hardly changing in size between pictures years apart. Also the experts are not quite sure, but probably not highly malignant if at all…. Santa turned up with hooks in his chin and tangled up, so it may even be a type of Scarring … like Keloid…” You can read the official study on the sample biopsied HERE.
Love and bubbles (and best wishes, Santa!),
ps Tanks so much for taking the time to read this post.While you are here, please feel free to check out some more of my ‘scuba versus tumour’ underwater adventures, including my other Great White Shark adventures! 🙂
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