The sand at Venice Beach was grey-black and burning hot. I was taking a break from sifting for shark teeth when the dark shapes floated by.
Every year, from the time I was five until the beginning of middle school, my family vacationed at the same resort, on the same beach, in the same city in Florida. We packed my grandmother’s van to the gills and made the 16-hour drive from St. Louis, Missouri to St. Pete Beach.
The trips became a pilgrimage in my family of near-religious proportions– not least because I love sharks.
I could name all the major species when I was six and identify a species by its body shape. I was equal parts scared and entranced by photos of sharks, mouths open and teeth ready to bite.
Whatever started it, my fascination spurred my parents to buy dozens of ocean books and take me to Sea World. There are photos of me ecstatically grinning in front of a pitch-black tank, the shark’s eyes behind me lit up red from the disposable camera’s flash.
It was a no-brainer to go to Venice Beach and sift for fossilized shark teeth. The beach doesn’t have the best sand and surf for lounging, but by a trick of history and currents, shark teeth wash up on its shore.
Armed with plastic pasta strainers, my mom and dad, brother and I stood in the shallow surf and sifted through the sand, plucking pointy teeth from the debris and steadily burning our shoulders, backs, arms and the tops of our ears.
It was a treasure hunt.
Sharks are never far from your mind when hunting for shark-teeth, so when two dark, shadows cut their way close to the shore, the immediate reaction was a panicked retreat to the beach. I turned towards the commotion to see people smiling and huffing in relief. The two blocky shadows were too portly to be sharks, and their snub-nosed snouts gave them away: Manatees.
For the rest of the trip, my family and I recited “Barbra Manatee,” a catchy kids song from the Christian show, “Veggie Tales.”
I was disappointed as a kid, I wanted to see real live sharks out in the wild. But, for all their teeth, sharks are actually delicate creatures. The videos we now have, thanks to shark week, reveal glimpses into a world we still know so little about. These prehistoric creatures, little changed, swimming on our planet, are ancient remnants of our direct past. They’re incredible and should be treated with the utmost respect, so I’m reasonably torn about cage diving and tourism centered around interacting with sharks.
I want to see them, many of us want to see them, for the thrill and beauty of being near a predator in their environment. But is that enough of a reason to disrupt them and their habitat? I don’t know, and in all of those family vacations, I never saw a shark.