Nothing to Fear but the Lack of Fear

I wrote awhile back that it was quite odd to interact with the animals in the Galapagos because they were completely fearless of natural predators. There are no wolves, bears, or other carnivorous mammals, so why would birds, turtles, or sea lions be afraid of me? It suggests a wonderful utopian nature built without primal fear.

But outside of the Galapagos, predators are everywhere. And so squirrels in Central Park scurry away, birds keep their distance, and deer stand at watch with their nervous gaze, ready for flight in an instant. That’s the natural state of things.

I guess that’s why I should be more suspicious of animals that don’t fear me. This week I went scuba diving off the Channel Islands in California. It was the last dive of the trip. As Matt, Rob, our divemaster, and I all descended down the anchor line in our dry suits, we noticed an odd looking ray near the bottom. It has the body of a ray, flounderish, and round, like an odd alien craft. About two and half feet in diameter, it was hovering and undulating just above the sand, its little membrane covered eyes almost hidden. It also has the tail of a shark, making it look like a strange mutant of a creature, further suggesting its antiquity and rarity, and of course making it even more interesting to explore and interact with.

The animal was calm at our approach and I floated towards it with small, slow kicks that were designed not to agitate the sand and cloud the waters. Within seconds I was face to face with it, both of us hovering inches above the sand. Rob and Matt watched as I came face to face with it. A diver took photos. All of a sudden it flipped vertically and I was confronted with its fishy, white underbelly, and 8 inch mouth with small sharp teeth. It went towards my face, and I flipped backward in instinctual defense. It was like the incubator animal in Alien, and it immediately jarred me. Not that this little thing could hurt me, or so I thought. So I relaxed and re-approached. Almost immediately it laid back on down on the sand and so did I, and it came up to me and rubbed by my neoprene covered hand. After another minute, it scooted off.

As I got back on the boat and we all reveled in my experience, the captain chuckled at our giddiness and my bravado. He began by describing the animal to the tee, including the blue gray body and spots and then proceeded to inform me that it was the pacific electric ray, an animal capable of discharging a kilowatt in 45 volt bursts, or roughly twice the current of an electric breaker. The captain knew someone who had been attacked by one, who had wrapped its underside around the head, and delivered the stunning charge. The 6’4, 300 pound behemoth described it as being hit in the head with a bat.

The official word from the Florida Museum of Natural History is that:

Divers are warned to avoid contact with the ray, as the shock of 45 volts or more is powerful enough to knock down an adult human. The Pacific electric ray is very confrontational and if harassed, will swim directly at divers. There are no confirmed mortalities from this ray, but there are some unexplained scuba fatalities in which this ray might have played a part.

If a great white or tiger shark takes too much interest in you, they say you should swim towards it, not away from it, indicating a lack of fear. In the wild, that will scare an animal, because it doesn’t know what you are and what your confidence indicates. Next time, perhaps I should take the same advice when an animal seems so unafraid of me …

Fear of a Brown Planet

As many of you know, my sister won an award for the Nashville young leader of the year by helping out underprivileged kids who were mostly minorities. Recently she has been working on an inclusion policy (racial friendliness) and fighting legislation to require English at the workplace. She relayed to me how much people in Nashville fear the fact the world is getting browner. In Nashville as well as America as a whole, Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the population, other than it seems, Reality TV contestants. As a native New Yorker, I like to see myself as open minded, unbiased, inclusionary, tolerant, yada, yada, yada. But you have to be careful in the way the fear machine seeps in.

Because of a late reservation for my last trip to London, the only affordable ticket was on Air India. Whether I liked it or not, there was an extra level of fear and anxiety that naturally crept in on the security line because everyone around me was, well, brown. Of course, I knew that Indians are different than Middle Easterners (though I justified some fear with the large Indian Muslim population). Nevertheless, I was shocked how much the not so subtle fear campaign of this administration has affected me.

That’s not to say that Indian people aren’t different. Much like the Chinese and I theorize other over-populated cultures which have people that have to fight fiercely for resources, the Indians in the airport were pushy in crowds. I always had someone leaning on me, from the back, from the side. When we boarded at the gate, the gate attendant had to call security because the crowd was pushing past her. She tried to hold them back, even raised her leg to brace the door. It was surreal, laughable even. Yes, Indians are a very pushy people.

But why should you believe me, when I write this? Am I not just another source of bias?

I believe many stereotypes are generally true. But you have to be careful about the ones you accept versus the ones you observe without bias. The fear machine is out there, and they are preying on us. And like a virus, they spread easily and muddy the water. And that's the worst brown planet of all.