“More people are killed by bee stings every year than shark attacks,” Jessica Esslinger told a crowd of families from the northwest suburbs. “Basically, sharks have no interest in people–they don’t like the taste of people. On the rare occasions they do attack people, most of the victims survive. It’s always a case of mistaken identity when sharks attack humans. A shark may mistake a person for a sick fish or an aquatic mammal.” She laughed. “Never act like a sick fish or an aquatic mammal.

“You know, it’s been documented that surfers off the California coastline were experiencing an upsurge of shark attacks. That’s because there was a “boogie-board’ fad. Those are thinner, shorter surfboards, and arms and legs hang over them. And that makes surfers look like a roundish, torpedo-shaped animal with flippers on the end and sides–like a sea otter, one of the sharks’ favorite foods.”

When her talk ended an hour later, a man in his mid-30s came up to the podium and exposed the plastic prosthesis he was wearing. “I was attacked by a shark,” he told her. “I was standing in murky, turbid, waist-deep water, and I felt something hit me. Now I’m missing everything from the knee down.”

A little shaken, Esslinger told the mild-mannered, earnest guy that he should have come up and told the whole group about his shark attack before they dispersed. But he said he was reluctant to share his experience with the kids in the audience. He didn’t want to scare them.

Esslinger turned to the eavesdroppers who had stayed behind and stressed how rare such an attack is. “I mean, sharks do not regularly nip off tourists’ limbs in Fort Lauderdale,” she said. “This guy is not a treasure diver or a fisherman or even a swimmer. I mean he spends virtually no time in salt water. It was like being struck by lightning. I mean there’s probably one person in the whole Chicago area that’s ever been attacked by a shark–and here he is.”

Esslinger and her partner, Nanette Schonberg, have spent the last eight years traveling around the city and suburbs salvaging the reputations of sharks and other creatures of the sea. Both are former Shedd Aquarium employees who have found an insatiable demand, in everyone from preschoolers to adults, for knowledge about aquatic life. While still working in the education department at the aquarium, they started their own off-hours business, “Some Things Fishy,” through which they provide presentations using slides, preserved specimens (everything from a two-and-a-half-foot stuffed thresher shark to a one-and-a-half-foot jaw of a lemon shark), and handouts that educate and titillate.

“It’s really fun to introduce people to the underwater world,” says Schonberg. “It’s easy to get their interest, and we end up promoting interest in the aquarium –which has been an underutilized resource in the city.” She claims that the people who are fascinated with her and Esslinger’s programs are also motivated to protect the underwater world.

“When I first snorkeled in Grand Cayman in 1967, I became hooked,” Schonberg says. “Two years later I became a certified scuba diver and eventually a dive master. There is an unknown beauty to underwater life–the interaction of the animals. Like if a fish bites another fish on the rear end, that’s interaction. A fish is saying to another one, ‘Go away. I’m protecting my home.'” Then she says abruptly, “Did you know that male sea horses carry the eggs?”

Esslinger, also a certified diver since 1977, says it’s easy teaching about aquatic biology. “There is a natural affinity to it people have, because the way underwater animals work relates to how we work. No one doesn’t like learning about aquatic biology.”

Esslinger and Schonberg have several programs (or will tailor one to a group’s interests) in addition to the one on the innocuousness of sharks. They stress that they’re interesting and talented teachers, not ichthyologists. Other programs deal with the many ways fish feed (“Devour Power”) and the ways fish have adapted to their environments over time (“Fantastic Fish”). They say groups prefer having the two come to them, which saves transportation expenses and the logistical hassle of attending scheduled events elsewhere.

“We bring along great specimens,” brags Esslinger. “We even bring shark meat for our participants to sample. We buy it dried in Chinatown–it’s the stuff they make shark-fin soup out of. It tastes like hard Shredded Wheat. Of course, we tell people it’s like eating beef jerky and trying to figure out what sirloin steak tastes like.”

During their aquarium years they accompanied teenagers and adults on study-vacations in the Florida Keys aboard the aquarium’s research and collecting vessel, and met many local divers who happily helped them out and provided them with excellent slides and specimens.

Consequently, they can illustrate all manner of bizarre fish adaptations–from the poison spines of the lionfish to the “false eyes” of some butterfly fish that make predators think they are about to travel in the opposite direction. They can readily explain bladders and spines and the ability of some fish to produce electricity, as well as the numerous ways fish have of seeing, stalking, and capturing their food and prey. And if one finds the power of a piranha a little hard to imagine, Esslinger and Schonberg can pass around a stuffed one, with its teeth bared.

“Kids have a very hard time understanding concepts of alive and dead–and preserved or real or phony,” says Schonberg. “I hold up a specimen and explain that at one time the fish was alive, but that now it’s dead. And it’s been prepared so it won’t rot and stink–so that it can be seen and handled. And then the most common questions a kid will still ask will be, “Is it real? Is it alive? Where did you get it? Did you kill that shark?’ So I explain it all again. I tell them I didn’t kill the shark. I have seen sharks underwater, but they have always just passed by. If I saw a great number of sharks and I was on the surface, I’d probably get out of the water. But if I was underwater with my scuba gear, I might just stay still and watch.”

Esslinger adds, “People are really into sharks–that’s our most popular program. There’s so much misinformation, though. But 12-year-old boys seem to know everything about them. They’re fascinated. They could teach the class–they remember all the statistics, they can identify every slide. There are a lot of animals more powerful than sharks, but sharks are what capture the imagination. People are so afraid of being eaten–it’s a terrifying thought.”

Schonberg will present “The Great Shark Hunt” on Wednesday, August 1, at 11 AM at the Niles Public Library, 6960 Oakton, Niles. It’s free; call 708-967-8554. For more information on “Some Things Fishy” programs call 708-864-6320.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.