At one time or another, most fishermen have a Jaws moment. For one gnarled veteran trawling Tuggerah Lake, actually a smallish freshwater lagoon situated about 90 km north of Sydney, that moment came just over an hour before sunrise on July 9. It was around 4 degrees Celsius on the lake at 5.30 am on Wednesday, making it the coldest morning of the year in these parts. Wrapped in several layers of clothing, the fisherman was startled by splashing noises coming from underneath his craft, then alarmed by a recurring thudding sound, as though something were striking it. Having rushed to one side of the boat, he peered down to see a gigantic fish trapped in a net.
It so happens he knows a lot about marine life. From this specimen's conical-shaped snout and peculiar coloring — gray dorsal area, white underside — and the size of the beast — clearly longer than his 5.5-m. (18-ft.) boat — he identified it as a great white shark, the world's largest predatory fish. He may or may not have known that it is rare, but not unheard of, for white pointers to attack and even sink boats as long as 10 m. (33 ft.). Whatever the case, he didn't muck about: in a state somewhere between agitation and terror, he cut the net loose and the shark with it, then watched as it swam away.
How would the ocean-going monster have gotten into a freshwater lagoon? Tuggerah Lake is connected to the Pacific Ocean through a tidal channel called The Entrance. It is 12 km long and 4 km. wide, with an average depth of 6-7 m, roughly 20 feet. "It's not a big lake," said Chief Inspector Winmill, "but it's a bloody big shark — if it's true."
Experts have their doubts. Calling on 35 years of experience with sharks and shark attacks in Australian waters, "and my knowledge of shark biology and behavior, I'd say it's highly unlikely that a white shark as large as indicated would get into a lake through a small opening as that at this location," says John West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File. "This story reminded me about a fascinating piece titled "Invitation to a Journey" written by Sri Eknath Easwaran. Sri Easwaran writes about a whale (Humphrey, as reporters called him) which on the way to Alaska, got trapped in the Sacramento River Delta and finally how it got out. Some excerpts from this article -
Not long ago, a young forty-foot humpback whale on his way to Alaska became enticed by the lure of San Francisco. He veered off course into the bay, and once inside, instead of deciding he had made a wrong turn and retracing his wake, he chose to push on to Sacramento. By the time I learned of his plight, he had worked his way into fresh waters and got trapped in the shallows of the Sacramento River Delta – a most uncongenial environment for any salt-water creature, but practically a bathtub for one used to thousands of miles of open sea.
Humphrey, as reporters dubbed him, immediately became a media sensation. Every day, news services carried updates on his predicament around the world, while hundreds of whale-lovers flocked to San Francisco to help the Coast Guard try to rescue him. But Humphrey just kept swimming up blind alleys.
Finally someone hit on the idea of luring him back to the sea by the call of recorded whale songs. Humphrey began leaping joyfully, splashing great sheets of water to the delight of spectators, and churned toward the open ocean at a good thirty miles an hour. Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge backed up in both directions as fans got out of their cars to crowd at the rails and cheer. They paid handsome fines, but as one woman told reporters, “It was worth every penny.”
Something in all of us cheers when a captive creature breaks free. We are born for freedom, even if we don’t understand what that means or how to find it. Somehow we sense that we are not meant to spend our lives in the shallows of pleasure and profit. We are made for vast spaces, to reach beyond boundaries until, as an English mystic put it, we are “clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.” We are born with intimations of a potential much, much grander than anything we can dream of in the day-to-day world.
While Humphrey’s story was unfolding in the daily news, we human viewers had the advantage of a higher dimension. We could look at maps, watch aerial views on TV, and see the scene whole: the narrow confines of the river delta, the broader bay with its narrow passage in and out, the vast expanse of ocean that Humphrey needed to find. To us it seemed so simple what to do.
But Humphrey had no access to that higher view. All he could have known was that an interesting side trip had turned into a trap. It’s easy to imagine how he must have felt as he found himself alone and boxed in, with no sense of where to turn for help in a situation he could not understand.
The media lost interest in Humphrey once he escaped. But I like to imagine how it must have felt to be free at last, charging out under the Golden Gate Bridge deaf to the cheers of earthbound creatures above him, into the open sea where he belonged.
There’s not much to the continental shelf in northern California, and whales swim fast. Within a few minutes Humphrey would have been in mile-deep waters again, with half a planet of open ocean to roam in as he pleased.
Then, free to go wherever he chose, he must instead have felt a silent command: “North. Go north. Go home.” No details, no map, no companions, no guide, just a direction and a desire in response to an overriding imperative from within: go home.