JENKS — Twenty sharks weave through the water. Some are 9 feet long and weigh 300 pounds. They have an endless supply of teeth on a conveyor belt of sorts. We’re talking 30,000 teeth in their lifetime. I wanted to tell you that to explain why I gave Christa Clawson, assistant curator at the Oklahoma Aquarium, one of those "Are you absolutely out of your mind?” looks. I know that’s not good business on my part, but let me share what she said. Standing at the base of the 465,000-gallon shark tank, she nonchalantly looked at me and said, "I love diving with them. It’s a very calming effect, how agile they are. Everybody has always heard how dangerous they are, but when you’re in that tank with them, sometimes just sitting there watching, they’re just very, very graceful and that always still just amazes me.” She kept talking, which was good, because I was speechless — which is about as rare as a day in Oklahoma without wind. "You kind of learn their mannerisms and know when it’s time to get out,” she said. "You know when to stay out of their way. Just like any other animal, it’s their space and they’ll let you know when you don’t belong there any more. We try to go in once a week to clean the floors, and either two or three of us get in.” Seeing the look on my face, she must have been trying to reassure me when she said they wear chain-mail suits to protect them against shark bites. "The main purpose of it is that if for some reason we did get bit, they couldn’t take a limb and rip it off,” she said. "They could crush you, but they couldn’t get through that chain mail to your skin.” Well heck, why didn’t you say so in the first place? That makes me feel a lot more at ease. She said she has never been bitten. "For the most part, they stay away from you,” she said. "If they start getting agitated, they may start getting closer to you, but you can usually tell by how they’re swimming, and it lets you know that they don’t want you there anymore. "For the most part they just leave you alone.” I wanted to talk with Clawson, an employee at the aquarium for about eight years, because I knew she helps feed the sharks. I had no idea that instead of listening to jazz or reading a good book, she relaxes by diving into a tank of sharks. What I found was that staff and volunteers are about as nervous feeding the sharks as I would be feeding guppies and goldfish. They know what they’re doing. And after years and years, they know who they’re feeding. Let me be clear: They don’t get in the tank and serve up the bonito and salmon twice a week. This is done at the top of the tank from the side, which for the most part includes a border around it. Of the 20 sharks in this tank, there are bull sharks, nurse sharks, lemon sharks and sand tigers. Pat Woodward, a retired research scientist, has been volunteering for about seven years. His friends and family joke with him about losing fingers or arms, but he tells them he never gets his hands that close to the shark’s mouth. Woodward uses a three-foot long pole with a hand-grip on one end and a clamp for the food on the other. And by the way, he feeds the largest bull shark, which is about 7 ½ feet long and 250 pounds. "He’s finicky about the way he eats,” Woodward said. "Sometimes he’ll like to eat salmon, sometimes he’ll like to eat tuna and sometimes he just doesn’t want to eat at all and no matter what you do, he’s not going to eat. Then other times he’s voracious; he’ll just keep circling and picking up pieces of food every time you put it down for him. "A lot of times he comes out of the water to get it.” But it’s not a feeding frenzy. The sharks sway through the water, find their food, eat it and move on in a usually docile manner. That doesn’t mean it’s boring, though. "The most interesting shot is when he’s on the bottom and sees a piece up at the surface, and he comes straight up, and you can just look down his mouth as he opens it to take the food off the pole,” Woodward said. "You just love to see that happen.”
Different from moviesSharks aren’t the attackers that movies make them out to be, Clawson said. She told me about something she has noticed. It was such a cool story, I was again speechless. The lemon sharks tend to rest on the bottom, because they can sit on the bottom and sleep. Sometimes the older lemon shark will roll over and not try to get back up. She’s fine; she’s just stuck in the current for a minute, Clawson said. The other female will grab her tail with her mouth and pull her to make her flip back up. "She’s not leaving a mark; she’s not doing anything to hurt her,” Clawson said. "And if she can’t get her to get up at that moment, both lemons will flank the one that’s down, one on each side, so that no other sharks can get by them. They’ll just stay on either side of her until she gets up.” I wouldn’t mind seeing that. Well ... from outside the tank.
300 Aquarium Drive, Jenks
• Open year-round (except Christmas): 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
• Tuesdays: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The last paid admission is one hour before closing. Ticket prices for general admission (plus tax)
• $13.95 for adults
• $11.95 for seniors and military
• $9.95 for children age 3 to 12
• Children age 2 and under are admitted free