Are you scared of sharks?
An unreasonable fear of sharks has been planted into our consciousness by Hollywood hype, the media and “shark attack” reporting. Of all the animals on our planet, arguably, it is sharks more than any that seem to elicit strong, negative emotional effects on individuals.
The truth is that sharks are misunderstood. Sharks are not our predators, they do not go around “attacking” us, we are simply not on their menu. The apex predator of our oceans, sharks have been around for 450 million years. Global shark populations are in rapid decline as a result of commercial fishing and shark finning practices. Over the last 50 years, global shark populations have declined by 90% as a result of overfishing, which has been exacerbated during the last decades by the growing demand for shark fins, specifically to be used as the key ingredient in shark fin soup. With an estimated 100 million sharks per year slaughtered, today, it is humans that are now the biggest predator and the biggest threat to shark populations. They need protection from us, not the other way around.
Divers get their DiveBuzz from many different experiences. For some, their buzz comes from wreck diving, for others it may be muck diving, macro photography or deep technical diving. For me, I love big animal interactions, I get my buzz from sharks and cannot even contemplate an ocean without them.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I recall being genuinely worried about sharks whilst ocean swimming, the fear instilled from memories of Jaws, and triggered when the beach shark alarm was occasionally sounded. Nowadays, as a dive addict, I simply cannot get enough shark interactions. In fact, I’m a shark addict. As an underwater videographer, I have filmed many ‘shark feeds’ at the magnificent Osprey reef in the Coral Sea. I have regularly been surrounded by more than 30 sharks including Grey and White-tip Reef sharks and the occasional, beautiful Silvertip shark. Even during the melee of a shark feed, I have never felt threatened. In fact, on one such feed, a shark has literally swum between my outstretched arms whilst holding the video camera without incident.
I do, however, have full respect for these magnificent creatures and understand that the ocean is their territory. As divers, we are privileged to visit this environment. With this privilege, comes respect. Sharks are, after all, potentially dangerous animals and as divers, we should never forget that.
Shark attacks – the truth
So what about “shark attacks” then? The term “shark attack” is something of a misnomer. The vast majority of incidents are not “attacks” at all. A surfer, for instance, whose board is bitten by a shark but the surfer himself is unharmed, or “bumps” from sharks on humans in low visibility water have often been recorded as shark attacks. Every time such a shark incident occurs, you can be assured to hear about it, often inaccurately portrayed by the media. An “attack” by a shark is really a very rare occurrence and often incorrectly recorded for statistical purposes.
As scuba divers, with no live catch, the chances of being attacked by a shark are even more remote. It is a common view that sharks do not like the noise and bubbles created by us tank breathing mammals. In fact, this view is currently being trialled as an alternate to shark net on beaches, not with divers but with plumes of bubbles pumped into the ocean to deter sharks from popular swimming spots! Much better than a shark net that only acts as a shark culling program and no real protection at all.
It is unfortunate that a shark’s only sense of touch is to nudge or bite something. This is how they investigate possible prey. It can therefore be pure luck whether a shark bites a surfer’s leg or his surfboard for that initial investigation. But why are they “attracted” to surfers in the first place? This is still up for debate, but from a shark’s perspective, the silhouette of a surfer lying on a board splashing may look very similar to a large, distressed or injured turtle or seal when viewed from below. I use the word attracted with caution, as statistically, the number of people who surf every day compared to the number of shark surfer incidents is totally insignificant. The majority of surfer’s are well aware of the small amount of risk it poses, and even those few who have been involved in a shark incident rarely support calls to destroy the animal.
Genuine attacks are often harrowing and sometimes fatal. However, in such genuine attacks, again, I encourage people to look at the circumstances in closer detail. Sharks are highly intelligent creatures and, for this reason, you never hear shark attack stories like a scene taken from Jaws, despite what the media would try to convey. There is virtually always a rational explanation of why a shark attack may have occurred.
In March 2012, a diver died from a shark bite while diving for crayfish off Stratham Beach in WA. In October 2011, a spearfisherman died from a shark attack off Rottnest Island, also in WA. Earlier in 2011, an abalone diver was “taken” by what was described as a Great White in South Australia. Let’s look at the facts. When crayfish and other fish are highly distressed or injured, they give off small vibrations. Sharks are not only able to smell, see and hear their potential prey, they are also able to detect such vibrations via their ability to sense electromagnetic fields. Sharks can pick up on such electromagnetic fields from fairly large distances away. With a catch bag full of goodies attached to diver’s hip, you can quickly get an idea of what may have happened. The shark isn’t attracted to the diver, but what he has in his catch bag.
The call for a shark cull
Since these incidents, some have expressed a need to commence a cull of Great White Sharks, which are protected and listed as vulnerable and migratory under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. One advocate of the cull was quoted as stating that, on average, abalone divers saw one Great White per year. Not exactly an indicator that the population is out of control? A similar consent was viewed following a spate of several shark “attacks” in Sydney in 2009, where local fisherman were quoted as saying that sharks needed to be culled as their populations were “out of control”. These views are unfounded and completely inappropriate at a time when we need to be protecting our increasingly rare sharks and raising awareness of the plight of sharks globally. The call for a cull is quite simply reactionary, an emotional reaction rather than being backed by any real science. Culling is essentially removing population, based on current scientifically calculated population numbers. As we do not know the current status or population count of Great Whites, any reference to culling cannot be considered without more scientific research and data collection. The data needs to display that the Great White population has returned to a healthy, sustainable number. And we simply do not have that data.
Science, population count and protection aside, a decision to hunt and kill a shark responsible for a shark attack fatality is quite simply misguided. Many sharks, including Great Whites, are known to cover large distances. The shark is unlikely to still be in the area and our ability to adequately identify the specific shark is extremely remote.
Even more concerning, the WA Government has recently released plans to act preemptively, where an order may be given to kill a white shark which is identified in close proximity to beachgoers, including setting of drum lines. In other words, an order to cull a shark maybe given if it is simply spotted swimming close to a popular beach. Firstly, unless you continue to kill sharks until they are extinct, there will always be sharks in the water. Secondly, there is no evidence that state authorised shark hunts make water-use any safer.
Do we have a shark problem or a human problem?
Every time we enter the ocean, we take a calculated risk as we enter the shark’s domain. As the World’s population continues to grow, so too does our interest in marine recreation. Spending more time in the ocean, of course increases our chances of interactions with sharks and the potential risks involved. Arguably, this risk is increased for individuals such as spear fishermen or abalone divers, carrying their catch in net bags and often operating in low visibility conditions, and in areas where shark sightings do occur. Abalone divers are fully aware of the risks involved in their trade. They get paid handsomely for the risk they take, earning what can be a six figure salary in less than three months of the year.
The risk can be mitigated by the use of devices such as “Shark Shields”, however the risk will always be present. Quite simply, if you are not comfortable with the risks involved in swimming, surfing, spear fishing, abalone diving or scuba diving, the simple answer is: don’t do it. There will always be a risk present, however small. The fact remains, but we have a far greater risk of suffering injury from a car accident driving to the beach or dive location than being attacked by a shark.
Let us always keep the risks associated with sharks in perspective. Let us educate the public on how to minimize their risk, the times of day and conditions in which shark attacks are more likely to occur, and the risks inherent in the activity they are doing. Let us spread the word. Let us protect this magnificent creature for future generations. 450 million years of evolution should not be wiped out by one generation.