When Jaws came out in the ’70s, people’s lives in the oceans changed forever. The movie grabbed the attention of audiences everywhere and cast a horrific feeling of danger in waters and beaches that people had never considered imposing before.
Suddenly there were sharks lurking in everyone’s mind as Jaws sold us on the idea that nature’s apex marine predators were out there, looking for careless swimmers who seemed deliciously oblivious to the great hunters of the deep! People were terrified of the water and sharks were on everyone’s mind for many years to come.
Even today, the stigma of a man-eating, mindless killing machine lurking in wait for unsuspecting swimmers is ingrained into our consciousness when we consider the oceans. People fear sharks. People hate sharks. People kill sharks and fish for them with a certain taste for adventure and vengeance that is unprecedented with most marine species.
The truth is that most people have never seen a wild shark. Most never will regardless of how often they swim in the oceans. Most people know nothing or close to nothing about sharks in general. But the picture that they do have is so far from accurate that it is sad and amazing to those people who spend time with and studying these animals.
The thing that I always wanted to do was learn more about the animals and how they really are. Are sharks really mindless killing machines that run on instinct like some deadly auto-piloted nightmare? Or is there perhaps something a little intrinsically deeper about these creatures? How smart are they? What are they like?
The best way to answer any question in life is to first ask, and then to seek out the best sources of information or the best experts in the subject in order to answer the question. I have done just that. My greatest allies were curiosity, intention, and a burning drive to learn everything that I could. I started to read and study on an academic level first. But this soon grew to a mass media study. Then in time I sought out the experts.
But the next powerful tool was to discover for myself. I began to swim and wade and dive with sharks. I needed to learn more and to figure out the truth. And it was not long before I began to discover just how little I really knew about them. I thought to myself, if I can have this many misconceptions and gaps in my mind about sharks, and I enjoy and seek them out as a subject of interest, then what must the common person who is oblivious think about them? The average person is still going by Jaws often enough, rather than the reality, which will paint a far different picture.
The average person does not know just how frightened of us most sharks are. They do not associate words like “shy,” “scared,” “mellow,” or “nervous” with sharks. Nor do they associate sharks with concepts such as “intelligence,” “versatility,” “playfulness,” or “awareness.” But again, this falls hand in hand with their experience level and degree of study. The sensationalized stories are far more interesting and fuel our hungry negative stereotypes than the truth about mistaken concepts and maligned animals.
In my studies and work with sharks I have uncovered an animal that is not easily approached. A shy and elusive predator that is so incredibly sensitive and scared of us that it takes a very concerted effort to be able to approach them. I have found a creature that rewards association and patience with a kind of curious interaction that astonishes and amazes anyone lucky enough to share such moments.
I know sharks that are so distinct in their behavior that they are easily picked out of a group because no matter how similar the group may appear physically, the actions speak louder than words. Some will approach and swim close, looking at you to see who and what you are. They will test you, not as a meal, but as a fellow ocean denizen to see how you react to them. It is interesting to see them and know that there is enough thought going on that they have the faculties to experiment in their interactions with you.
I know sharks that are quite social and seem to enjoy the company of divers or swimmers with whom they are familiar, while they will shy away from all others. They have their favorites and you can always tell who that person is. These sharks will willingly spend time very close to such a person. They always seem to sense the people who enjoy them the most. There is a sort of cross species friendship and enjoyment that is very rewarding and magical when it happens.
I have seen sharks take their personal relationships or interactions with a favorite diver one step beyond — large sharks who have actively threatened and chased off other medium to large sharks who approached too close to their human companion. I smile, as I know that this is most certainly not the image that most people have of these animals. But experience opens a world that no amount of big screen bullshit and myth can override. The Jaws idea is simply not in my thinking.
I wish that I could share a new truth about these creatures with the world. I want to tell everyone just how wrong they are about sharks and the danger levels that they represent. While one must always respect the fact that they are large predators and well capable of being aggressive or dangerous if they see a need, most are simply not inclined to treat with us on that level unless triggered or provoked.
Around the world the annual shark bite (I refuse to use the word attack because it is not appropriate for the action) rate is around 70. Out of these, one to five wind up as fatalities on average. Most of these occur in water less than three feet deep by sharks under six feet in length. It is almost always in cloudy or murky water in which the shark’s vision is obscured. The bite is generally to the lower leg, foot, ankle, or hand. Most of the time the shark swiftly realizes its mistake and either releases or attempts to release and swim away. It is not always easy with a panicked swimmer jerking in one direction while a mouth full of back recurved teeth designed to catch and hold fish is embedded in flesh and preventing an easy release. Amazingly enough, the majority of shark bites — 98.9% — are superficial and do not even require stitches. There is seldom ever any removal of flesh, though it will make all of the news media when such incidents happen.
The other group of shark bite encounters happens to surfers who are often mistaken for a seal or sea turtle in the surf. These are bit by the big three: the bull shark, great white shark, and tiger shark. In most cases the sharks soon realize that the surfer is not a fat juicy seal and they let go and swim off. The surfer returns with scare, big injuries, and again the Jaws image is reinforced in the public mind because the public never thought to view it from the animal’s perspective. The public seldom asks of the surfer, “What were you thinking, surfing so close to a seal colony? Don’t you know that you look a lot like a surfing seal or sea-lion to a large predator?” It’s easier to blame the shark.
Mistaken identity is almost always the cause of most negative shark encounters. At least on the side of sharks. But the converse is quite different. More people are killed by vending machines falling on them each year (nine on average) than are killed by sharks. The same holds true for car crashes, lightning strikes, dog bites, etc. But in the case of humans toward sharks the statistics are quite different. Sharks have far more to fear from us than we have to fear from them.
Right now in the world’s oceans there is a war going on. Humans vs. everything else. And the biggest casualty of this war is the world’s shark population. 2/3rds of all species are down by 90-95% of what they were just 30 years ago. Sharks are vanishing at an alarming rate. They are the most hunted animal group in all of human history. 104 Million sharks are fished and killed each year. Of these, 78 million are killed only for their fins to supply the growing shark-fin soup trade in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Every fisherman in the world knows that there is a bounty on shark’s fins. Whether or not they fish for sharks directly or catch them as “bycatch” (the unintended species taken by a fishing industry targeting a certain type of marine life), they are quick to take the fins. It is an act often inflicted on the live animal. The fins are cut away from the body and the shark is tossed overboard to die, sinking into the depths, in pain, and bleeding, unable to swim. It will either bleed to death slowly or be torn apart by other predators and scavengers in the water.
Shark fins are the third highest earning illegal trade commodity on the planet next to drugs and weapons. The fins can fetch prices between $300 – $700 a kilo on the Asian market. The soup is considered a status symbol with great health and virility benefits for the consumer.
Once an extravagance that was too expensive for the common man, now, with a booming economy, more and more Chinese and other Asians have disposable income, which they are willing to spend on luxuries such as this soup. It is a soup killing our oceans and in an ironic and sick twist of fate it is also killing its supporters.
This is due to the fact that as apex marine predators who are large and long lived, sharks and other similar predators are loaded with massive amounts of toxins and pollution that have moved up the food chain. Years of ocean dumping of our chemical wastes have not caused these chemicals to vanish or dissipate. Instead, the food chain concentrates these elements in its top predators. Sharks are loaded with methyl mercury, lead, cadmium, POPs (Persistent Organic Pollution) such as DDT and PCBs, and many other toxins.
In turn, shark-fin soup is also loaded with these same chemicals. We are a twisted creature in our own right it seems. So do sharks kill humans? Yes, on occasion they do. But now in their rapid demise, nature is fighting back on a much more insidious level. Dead sharks are starting to kill people. Methyl mercury is the shark’s avenging ghost in a sad war in which there are no winners.
And what of the remaining sharks? Is there hope in stopping the chaos and slaughter? Is there any hope in turning the tide and bringing back balance to these animals and our oceans? The answer is yes. There is still hope for a change. Still time to correct things before the balance is irrevocably altered forever. It starts with awareness and education. It starts with a simple shift of mindset and an awareness of the reality behind the myths. Healthy oceans need sharks, and we need healthy oceans. In other words, we need sharks in order to survive as a species as well.
Erik Brush is a Danish/American wildlife artist turned conservationist and shark biologist. Mr. Brush is the author of the groundbreaking book “The Sixth Extinction” which shares the reality of the world’s oceans and the marine crises that threaten all of us with a global mass extinction event. He is an administrator for the Global Shark Initiative, and works with Shark Savers, Stop Shark Finning, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Oceana, the Environmental Investigation Agency, WildAid, and various other NGOs.
He is also a well known and powerful litigator and writer who has taken on large national and international firms and organizations in defense of oceans and marine life. His track record in both the national and international arena is 100% successful. Mr. Brush is currently living in Sarasota, Florida where he is involved in local shark research and a growing battle with British Petroleum. Erik Brush can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
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