sharks and humans: a complicated relationship

In Fijian mythology he is known as Dakuwanga, in Hawaiian, she is known as  Ka’ahupahau, but regardless of culture or name of their shark God, these denizens of the deep play more than a passing role in all of our lives whether we know it or not. 

SHARK!  For most people that word sears a deep-seated fear into our souls, but where does it stem from?  The majority of people on the planet will never even see a shark in the wild in their lifetime yet it’s many of those same people's greatest fear.  How can we be afraid of something that we only see in movies and the media?  Perhaps, that’s our answer right there. There has been a media campaign against sharks for as long as newspapers have been in print. Why? Because we love a good story, don’t we! The battle of man vs beast has been the basis of literally thousands if not millions of tales in books and blockbuster movies and I, for one, have gobbled them up with feverish glee since I was a child. 

 

My father, as well as being a police officer, was also a swimming coach and so I was introduced to the sea at two weeks old and then later became a state-level swimmer along with my two younger brothers. My dad would set times for us to break in various swimming styles and have a dollar amount attached to each time if we broke them. He thought that would motivate me to swim faster in my races, and it did, but never as much as when I had a shark bearing me down from behind in my lane. No one could catch me once the imaginary shark lords would open up the shark trap door behind me and release an angry, bitey, water missile to pursue me in the pool.

Forget the reality that a shark would almost immediately die in a chlorinated swimming pool, or that I’d never actually seen a shark until I was 31 and it was actually eating me. 

Our imaginations are incredibly powerful tools when utilized correctly. They can imagine the greatest contraptions and bring them to life or our greatest horrors and bring fear to life.  When guided by front-page pictures of the gaping jaws of great white sharks and headlines such as, ‘Man-eating shark, savagely attacks local man’, it’s no wonder we’re scared and enamored. 

 

But what is the reality?

 

I’m one of a small group of people that can attest that being eaten alive hurts.  It really, really hurts. I was one of those people that thought if we killed all the sharks then we could roam the ocean, free of peril.  From 2014-2015 an average of ten people a day died from drowning in the United States, 1 in 5 being under 14. In 2016 alone, 320,000 people drowned around the world. In that same time period, 81 people had a reported shark interaction and 4 resulted in a fatality.  Four, in the whole world. Compared to nearly everything this crazy world has cooked up to kill us, sharks continuously remain one of the least deadly but most feared.  

Some years are worse than others, however, and this is indicative of what has happened in Australia this year.  My home country has had five fatalities since January already. Two in a known great white hotspot in northern New South Wales, one while spearfishing, and another in a known great white hotspot in Western Australia. The last, a wildlife officer, killed in the Great Barrier Reef marine park, which had seen a series of shark interactions in the preceding months. Aside from the terrible loss of life and the heartbreak of loved ones, what does that tell us?  To me, it shows that either people know the risks and are willing to take them or they were unprepared and uninformed. The first we can do nothing about.  We Aussies love a bit of adventure and the ‘she’ll be right, mate!’ attitude is still very prevalent from our grandparents' days. The second, unprepared and uninformed, is no excuse.  When we have the wealth of the world's knowledge within a few keystrokes, there is no reason for anyone to go into an inherently wild and dangerous place without having adequate knowledge of recent hazardous events. Would you stroll through the forests of North America without a guide and/or protection from bears, mountain lions, and wolves? Probably not.  Then why wouldn’t you arm yourself with knowledge on the dangers of sharks in the areas you decide to venture?  Of course, there is just bad luck. No one had been attacked in 60 years in Sydney harbour before my dance with death.  But when you are a Navy clearance diver and ordered to swim around in murky water in a very seal-esque outfit then you say, “Yes sir,” and hope for the best.  After all, we’re protected by nets and drum-lines, aren’t we?

 

There has been an active shark cull in Australia since the 1930s with the government deploying deadly shark nets and baited hooks attached to buoys along concerned coastal regions. In NSW, where there are 51 nets, in 2015-16, a total of 748 ocean creatures were captured by them. Of those, 133 were target sharks such as whites, tigers, and bulls. Ninety of those creatures caught—like bottlenose dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and green turtles—were threatened or protected species. Even whales have fallen victim to these nets on a yearly basis. 

New ‘smart buoys’ have been introduced in the state and I had the opportunity to work briefly, alongside the operators. These devices signal to the operator's phone when a buoy has been activated by a caught animal and they proceed to investigate as soon as able to release non-target species (dead or alive) or transport target sharks further out to sea.  On a recent Shark Week shoot for Discovery Channel, we caught two 5-6 foot great whites within 15 minutes of each other on the same buoy, 500 meters from a popular swimming beach. They were embedded with satellite tracking tags, DNA samples were taken and they were then released not far from where they were caught. The next morning a group of 30 early morning swimmers paddled all the way to the buoy and back for morning exercise.  

 

We love them and we hate them.  Never a more complicated relationship and the numbers for Shark Week are indicative of this with almost 40 million total viewers in 2018.  I for one ‘get it’.  They are beautiful, terrifying creatures that are hard to tear your eyes from. My fascination only grew after my shark attack which left me with two missing limbs and a Navy career in jeopardy.  Let it be known that I never blamed the shark. I, for one, always knew the risks of my job and my personal life.  Motorcycles, jumping out of aircraft, technical diving and playing with bombs and explosives are not most people's cup of tea, but some body’s got to do it.  As they say, "A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for."  I was not built for sitting in an office. I’d hazard to say that none of us are.  Many of us have lost our desire for adventure in substitute for safety.  Others, like myself, know the risks, weigh them up carefully, and choose to live.  If that means we get injured or God forbid, die doing what we love, then those are the dice we play.  

Of the 100 million sharks that humans kill every year for soup, flesh, dog treats, and make-up, how long will it be until the population collapses and our oceans tumble like a game of Jenga?  Scientists say 2048, the year they predict our oceans will be devoid of life if we fail to curb our lust for seafood. If the sharks die, then a series of events will happen: Other species populations that were eaten by sharks previously will explode. They in turn will consume entire populations of their prey, creating an overabundance of another organism, and the whole balance of the ocean's delicate eco-system would be destroyed. No tiger sharks to eat turtles? Turtle populations explode and they eat all the seagrass, consequently starving manatees and destroying the habitat for small fish. Sharks that eat rays are wiped out? The ray populations that consume all of the mollusks explode, in turn collapsing the scalloping industry. People lose their jobs, their boats, and their homes.  

 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we need sharks more than they need us.  So maybe you can choose to look at the shark from a sharks-eye view and change not only your perception but also your attitude.  Every single person I take for their first shark dive says it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, including Will Smith, Ronda Rousey  and most recently, Iron Mike Tyson. They can’t all be wrong. 

If the sharks die, then the oceans die and then we die.

So sign those petitions when you see them, join local organizations like Recycle for Veterans, work to clean our beaches, support organizations working on the front lines to save our planet like Shark Allies and Sea Shepherd, eat less fish, and tune in to Shark Week for action, education and fun.

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