MYRTLE BEACH — If youre honest with yourself, youll admit theres something titillating about the work that Stacia White does.
The senior aquarist at Ripleys Aquarium, White swims with the sharks, and for at least some of you, the thought of that elicits the same kind of salivary anticipation as the thought of skydiving, bungee jumping or tightrope walking.
And while White is much more than Ripleys shark lady, her work with Ripleys no doubt enhances the visits of the 10,000 or so people who ride the aquariums moving walkway under the shark tank each summer day.
The aquarium at Broadway at the Beach and its various exhibits are important, said Joe Rubino, a tourist from Charlotte, N.C., on the walkway Wednesday with his daughter, because its something different to do along the Grand Strand. A visit to it also can teach kids about the wonders of the ocean.
His daughter, Danielle, 10, said it wasnt the first time shed seen Ripleys sharks, but theyre still scary.
They are wild animals, White acknowledges, and as such are unpredictable. And yes, they can inflict serious, even fatal, damage.
But if you know what youre doing and how to deflect a shark thats getting too curious, White said, the chances of something going wrong are minimal.
Indeed. Factmonster.com says that your chances of being killed by lightning in the U.S. are 30 times greater than dying from a shark attack. Bees, wasps and snakes kill more people each year than sharks.
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, White fell in love with the Grand Strand on a family vacation and because of that, enrolled in Coastal Carolina University, where she earned a bachelors degree in 2002 with a double major in marine science and biology.
She had interned at Newport Aquarium in Newport, Ky., between her junior and senior year and returned there after she graduated. That first summer, the aquarium had a pair of zebra shark pups that fascinated White.
I saw each one has its own personality, she said.
She heard about a job at Ripleys, jumped at the chance to return to the South Carolina coast and became one of the eight-person fish tank crew that she now supervises.
She didnt just jump into the 750,000-gallon shark tank right away, though. Ripleys has a strict process that those allowed in the shark tank must go through first, so White started by diving in the ray tank, moved to the coral tank and only then graduated to the big time.
She said she was very excited her first time with the sharks, an emotion that the fish likely could sense. Sharks have electric sensors on their bodies and in their mouths, and White said they seem to be able to sense the demeanor of those in their domain.
The sensors on their bodies allow sharks to tell which side prey is on while those in the fishs mouth help it to home in on food when its mouth is open and it can no longer see its target.
Swimmers in Ripleys shark tank carry whats called guard poles that they can use to keep the fish away from someone who is, for instance, cleaning the tank. White said its as easy as putting the pole against the sharks snout and pushing its head in another direction. Sharks cant swim backwards, she explained, so whichever way its head is aiming is the direction itll swim.
A sharks normal diet is the same kind of fish that share the tank at Ripleys. Yes, White said, sometimes one of the other fish will become lunch or dinner, but its not a frequent occurrence.
We do feed them extra well so they dont have that urge to eat all the time, she said.
A fish in the tank Wednesday bore scars from a shark bite White guessed it got during a feeding. The fish was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got nipped by a shark aiming for its prepared meal.
Its the same kind of bite most humans get from sharks. White said they are exploratory nips, after which the shark quickly disappears from the scene. Sharks likely are as frightened of humans as humans are of them.
Ripleys Aquarium has 13 sand tiger sharks, five sandbar sharks, three nurse sharks and four sawfish, which are Whites favorite fish.
A sawfish is a near duplicate of a saw shark, a species with a distinctive, toothed blade for a snout. But sawfish, which are extremely endangered, are related to rays and have gills on their undersides rather than on their sides like other fish.
White is the keeper of the stud book yes, as in horse breeding for sawfish nationwide, which number 46 in 14 aquariums. The Myrtle Beach Ripleys has three species of sawfish, a number matched only by Ripleys Aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn., White said.
With sawfish, aquariums act kind of like zoos, places that can breed the stock to replenish whats disappeared from the wild.
As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Ripleys ships some of the fish it breeds to other accredited aquariums. It doesnt stock its tanks with wild fish that are endangered.
White said the shark tank has a kind of Zen tank behind it where the smaller fish can go as a respite from the constant scrutiny of the sharks and the tourists on the moving walkway. Sharks cant get in it because the opening is too small for them to swim through.
Ripleys also has offsite tanks where it can take sick fish and acclimate fish headed to the aquarium from the wild.
While some humans might pity captive sharks, the statistics say that the fish themselves find it quite cushy.
Sand tiger sharks, White said, can grow to 10 feet and 500 pounds in their 20 years to 30 years in a proper aquarium.
The oldest one found in the wild? Seventeen years, White said.
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.