Other kids might pester Santa with trivial requests for ponies and unicorns and such.
Kori Garza, however, was more original. At 3, she plunked on his lap and asked for a great white shark.
She didn’t get it, which was probably for the best. It would be odd, she now grants, “to have a great white swimming in the bathtub.”
But it was a fine start for her current life: Garza (shown here) is a shark expert and the central figure in “World’s Biggest Tiger Shark?” That’s at 8 p.m. Sunday (July 19), launching National Geographic’s “Sharkfest.” (See overview under “stories” and schedule under “quick news and comments.)
The special goes back to a time when Garza was swimming and studying in French Polynesia. “We had a few of the small tiger sharks – well, 6-to-8-foot ones – there,” she recalled by phone. “I kind of looked up and saw this shadow, almost like a submarine. My jaw just dropped.”
Fortunately, two colleagues had cameras. She swam alongside this giant, so the size could be calculated by photos. They decided this female, which she named Kamakai, is about 16 feet, possibly 18. The high end would make her the world’s longest tiger, but even more impressive is the girth.
The special has Garza trying to re-find Kamakai, while studying other behavior. She uses herself as bait, to record a rare case ot team hunting by sharks. The 3-year-old Kori would approve.
Garza doesn’t remember the Santa Claus visit, but her mother has told her the story – approvingly. “She’s a big fan of horror films.”
That explains why Garza had watched “Jaws” at age 3 and why she continued seeing shows about sharks and crocodiles. In St. Louis, 700 miles from salt water, she quickly knew what she wanted to do.
Her mother (a mail carrier) and father (a policeman) may have been surprised, she said, but didn’t object. “They were, ‘OK, good luck with that.’”
She finished high school a year early and reached college at 16 – something that a fairly tall girl can do without being noticed. “No one knew” how young she was, said Garza, who’s 5-foot-8.
After getting a marine science degree from Hawaii Pacific University, she was working on projects to study and categorize coral reefs. That’s when a producer asked her to be part of an episode for the Discovery Channel’s 2014 “Shark Week.”
Ever since, Garza has been immersed in shark life – doing studies, taking photos, working for tour companies and starting her own Ladyshark tours. For the past four years (two full-time) she’s lived in French Polynesia, a place that has outlawed shark-hunting since 2006.
That creates a two-million-square-mile zone where sharks can roam free, seemingly helping them to break size records, “And there have been almost no unprovoked shark attacks,” Garza said.
She’s developed the knack of “re-directing” a shark by tapping it gently on the snout (shown here). “It’s not difficult, (but) the first few times it’s a little scary.”
And she’s been able to spend four minutes underwater. Meditation techniques and relaxation help.
That, of course, requires being relaxed while surrounded by potential killers. Garza can. “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living …. I might always smell like fish and blood, but I love it.”
– “World’s Biggest Tiger Sharki?” 8 p.m. Sunday (July 19), National Geographic; repeats at 2:03 a.m.
– Other times include 5 p.m. Monday and 7 p.m. July 26 on National Geographic; also, 9 p.m. Aug. 11 on Nat Geo Wild