The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear, and These Two Baltimore Hunters Can Make Them Smile

updated 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even before Hollywood, sharks had a fearsome reputation. "There is a mystical look in their eyes," says John Dinga, 36, who hunts them on the high seas. "It's an empty eye, a blank stare. It creeps one out." And Dinga has not exactly been messing with leviathans. Instead, he and Rob Mottice, 29, have been rounding up one-to three-and-a-half-foot sharks to stock the $21.3 million National Aquarium, which is being built with federal funds and will open in Baltimore next summer. "The pups are easier to handle and more adaptable," Dinga explains. "But by next July they'll be up to five feet." So far 21 sharks representing three species have been snared.

With a crew of six in a 23-foot, 200-hp craft, the men worked the bountiful, warm waters off Lewes, Del. and Beaufort, N.C. during the late summer. They used nets and long lines (300-foot ropes dangling bloody bluefish and hooks every 10 feet). But rods with wire leaders and hooks baited with fish scraps proved even better.

Once a shark was snagged, it was quickly placed in the boat's 3½'-by-7' holding tank, and the boat dashed for shore at 35 knots. Often a trip of three miles might be made for a single fish. Speed was essential because most sharks suffer fatal tissue degeneration when they are confined. To survive they must keep swimming, with water moving through their mouths and over their gills.

Upon docking, Dinga and Mottice hand-carried their catch to huge indoor tanks filled with 80° seawater. In order to keep the sharks' blood circulating, their captors had to get into the water and "walk" them for as long as two hours. "Left alone," Dinga says, "they give up, roll over and die. The sharks reacclimate after several days. It is dangerous to go in with them then," he continues. "But my worrying about shark attacks would be like an airline pilot worrying about crashing. You have to believe, 'It won't happen to me.' " Dinga has never been assaulted by one of his junior Jaws but has had fingers mangled in diving accidents, once by a 10-pound lobster, once by a moray eel. "But I got the lobster," he proclaims. "He was delicious."

Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Dinga, the son of a railroad freight agent and a social worker, spent his childhood summers catching fish in the Florida Keys. Graduating from City College of New York with an oceanography degree, he moved to an island off Puerto Rico and for eight years exported tropical fish to wholesalers and aquariums. In 1974 he became the curator of a New England aquarium and in 1978 was appointed curator of the new Baltimore complex. Separated from his wife, Susan, Dinga lives with son Andy, 13, in the city's Riverside area.

Mottice, who serves as the aquarium's assistant curator of husbandry, was raised in landlocked Steubenville, Ohio, the son of a steel mill clerk. Fish fascinated Rob from the age of 8, when one of his two guppies gave birth to 53. He received a degree in marine biology and chemistry from Bowling Green State University.

The shark hunt will resume next spring, with 50 more specimens to be captured. Meanwhile the 75 percent of their haul (brown, sharpnose and sand tiger sharks) that survived are being kept in four 3,000-gallon swimming pools in a Baltimore warehouse. The aquarium plans a 200,000-gallon, racetrack-shaped glass tank to hold 10 to 12 species. Spectators will gawk in the center, continually circled by the sharks, some of them man-eaters. Only the fish figure to be frustrated.

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