In 2011 my wife and I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We were excited to see the recently caught juvenile Great White Shark. We pushed through the human lemmings and planted ourselves in front of the thick tank glass. Before long, the Great White cruised past us. The shark was beautiful, streamlined like a torpedo, teeth sharp as a saw blade.
We expected to see the shark swimming in an empty tank. Instead, the tank was teeming with tuna, manta rays and pilot fish. Most of the fish kept their distance but a few dared to pass a few feet in front of the Great White’s mouth. The Great White ignored them.
“Aren’t those other fish scared,” I asked my wife.
“They like it,” the aging docent in the corner said. He had soft white hair, a white suit and a hand-scrawled name tag that read “Clifford.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“We used to have a tiger shark in there. After it died, the other fish started fighting and acting erratically. They didn’t know who was in charge so they didn’t know how to behave. As soon as we introduced the Great White, they all calmed down. Animals need an alpha dog around. So they know the pecking order. People are the same way. We need someone with bigger balls than us. Otherwise we start acting like jerks.”
“Does the shark have a name,” I asked.
“I call him Morty because he doesn’t chew his food. He swallows it whole like my brother Morty.”
My wife and I laughed.
“He also craps like Morty — all over the place and when you least expect it.”
The Great White propelled itself forward in a side-to-side motion. It’s eyes were black, it’s snout covered with scars, a chunk gone from the back of it’s dorsal fin.
“How long do Great Whites live,” I asked.
“In the wild they can live up to 90 years old. In captivity, they’re screwed. If we don’t get this bastard back in the ocean he’ll be hanging on someone’s living room wall by Christmas.”
“What do you feed him?”
“Something live. Great Whites don’t like dead fish. They need the thrill of the kill, lots of thrashing and blood and guts all over the place. The aquarium feeds them after hours. They don’t want little kids soiling their pants from fright.”
“Like your brother Morty.”
“Yeah, like Morty.”
The docent was on a roll, his patter a kind of spontaneous geezer rap interspersed with quirky bits of trivia.
“In the past ten years, there have been 66 great white shark attacks on humans. 14 fatal. You know how many sharks we killed in that same period?”
“More than 300 million.”
“I didn’t know there were that many sharks in the ocean,” I said.
“We kill them because we’re scared of them. In a fair fight they’d tear us apart. I keep waiting for somebody to fall in the tank and give us a real show. Broadcast the whole thing live on the internet shark cam. That’d be great for business, don’t you think?”
“The Romans and the lions,” I said.
“You ever hear the joke, ‘What do you do if you’re attacked by a great white?’”
“You hit him in the snout. If that doesn’t work, try hitting him with your stump.”
Suddenly, two security guards pushed through the crowd toward the docent. “Clifford,” one of the guards said. “How many times have we told you, you are not allowed in the aquarium.” They each grabbed one of the docent’s arms and escorted him away.
We knew it was time for us to go as well. We’d lost our alpha dog and we didn’t know how to behave.