Monster or Marvel: The Truth About Sharks

In only the past five years, Australia has witnessed 15 fatal shark attacks, giving us the infamous reputation of ‘shark attack capital of the world’. It would seem our waters are infested with eating machines just waiting for another human morsel. But are sharks really the monsters that we fear?

When sharks make the news, the media generally take a sensationalist approach - a good monster story is a great money-maker. In a recent study, it was found that in 300 news items on sharks across 20 major publications in the U.S.A. and Australia spanning 10 years, over half of the publications were negative in content and focused on attacks. Only 11% of content was related to the conservation and ecological significance of these creatures.

Sharks are arguably the most misunderstood creatures in the world. Unfortunately, their importance to the overall health of the ocean and the dire need for increased conservation efforts is often overshadowed by our misguided fear and lack of knowledge.

WHY DO SHARKS BITE US?

Sharks are intelligent, curious animals capable of exhibiting complex behaviours that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of. Why sharks bite people is not an easy question to answer, but there are some theories as to why this might occur.

Sharks are curious and just want to see what you are. With no natural predators (other than larger sharks), sharks tend to investigate objects with little fear. Since they lack hands or paws, they ‘test’ objects with a bite. Needless to say, these bites are capable of inflicting serious injury or death. Sharks have been known to bite surfboards, boat motors and even plastic bags.

Sharks may have made a mistake and thought you were something else. Sharks use their vision in the final stages of an attack and may mistake the shape of a paddling surfer or scuba diver for a turtle or seal silhouetted against the sun.

Note the similarities in the silhouettes. Image courtesy of @nakawe_project.

Note the similarities in the silhouettes. Image courtesy of @nakawe_project.

Sharks can be social and ‘moody’. Using specific body postures and swimming patterns, sharks are believed to communicate their social dominance to defend their personal space and food. Sharks may therefore sense that a human (who may not even know a shark is nearby) is encroaching on its space or fear that said human may even be after the same food!

ARE SHARKS STARTING TO ‘LIKE’ HUMANS?           

It is true, shark attacks have been on the increase. However, this has been shown to match very well with the increased numbers of people living near the coast and using the water. Considering our ever increasing population and, in particular, how summer temperatures can from vary year to year, it is more accurate to average the number of shark attacks per decade rather than annually.

In Western Australia, there have been eight fatal shark attacks since 2010, three of which were between September and October in 2013. At face value, such quick successions in attacks made the waters seem ‘unswimmable’ because of the idea that sharks were ‘on the hunt’ for humans. Nevertheless, if you place these incidents in the context of decadal averages, the rate of fatalities has remained constant at about 1.1 per year. It is important to note though that despite these statistics, we should by no means ever detract from the necessity to deal with such events with appropriate sensitivity towards victims’ friends and family.

HOW CAN WE LIVE WITH SHARKS?

It is possible to live with sharks and mitigate against attacks. Beach nets and drumlines (floating drums with a hanging baited hook) are a popular method to protect people, but unfortunately these may be doing more harm than good by killing whales, dolphins and sea turtles. It is even possible that captured animals (including other sharks) may act as bait, actually attracting more sharks to the area.   

Non-lethal and more cost-effective options are currently being explored, with many having added benefits such as public education and offering positive interaction with sharks themselves. Tracking technology, for example, allows scientists to monitor where sharks travel in real-time by equipping them with satellite tags and thus warning beach-goers of certain areas. Scientists have even provided sharks with a ‘voice’ by giving them their very own Twitter accounts with live map updates - you can therefore follow the adventures of your favourite shark!  

Follow Lydia and Mary Lee now @ https://twitter.com/rockstarlydia and https://twitter.com/maryleeshark.

A great white shark photographed in False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa. Photographed by Leonardo Guida.

A great white shark photographed in False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa. Photographed by Leonardo Guida.

Observation towers already exist at popular beaches primarily to prevent drowning, a phenomenon killing an average of 93 Australians at beaches per year in the past 10 years. With the addition of more observers and/or observational methods (e.g. helicopter patrol), more eyes on the water could not only mean fewer drownings, but also a larger likelihood of warning beach-goers about sharks in the immediate vicinity and along nearby stretches of coastline.

Research into repellent technology still has significant obstacles to overcome, but in principle it is working towards exploiting shark behaviour and biology to reduce incidents. Electronic deterrents exploit the shark’s ability to detect bio-electrical signals from other animals and ideally discourage the shark from coming nearby. Another repellent involves wetsuit design. Certain patterns and colours help break up your ‘outline’ so that you would essentially be invisible in the water or look like an unappetising, poisonous fish. Research is very much preliminary, although it is great to see scientists exploring options that minimize harm to both human and shark.

Wetsuits designed to deter sharks. On the left, a wetsuit designed to appear unappetising like a poisonous fish. On the right, a wetsuit designed to make you appear ‘invisible’ in the water. Image courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk

Wetsuits designed to deter sharks. On the left, a wetsuit designed to appear unappetising like a poisonous fish. On the right, a wetsuit designed to make you appear ‘invisible’ in the water. Image courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk

CHANGING OUR PERCEPTION OF SHARKS

Attitudes towards sharks haven’t always been negative and indeed vary across cultures. For example, some island cultures have traditionally had an intimate relationship with the ocean for sustenance and long ago recognised the importance of sharks in the ocean, some even worshipping them as gods. Both Fijian and Hawaiian mythologies, as examples, included sharks as significant aspects of their belief systems. In contrast, Western cultures have often viewed sharks as demons of the ocean; you only need to view some 17th and 18th Century paintings of sailors in trouble at sea to understand this perception. Arguably, Western society has had less reliance on and interaction with the shark compared to more island-based cultures and, as such, the everyday significance of shark species has been vastly different.

'Watson and the Shark' by John Singleton Copley,  1778.

'Watson and the Shark' by John Singleton Copley,  1778.

Fortunately, we are all reconnecting with and understanding the shark. Reputable aquariums and ecotourism have not only provided positive interaction and education, but have shown that sharks are worth more alive than dead. When the controversial Western Australian shark cull policy was announced, there was unprecedented support across all of Australia to protect the shark with rallies, protests and social media publications involving thousands of people.

Ironically, shark attack survivors are some of the greatest defenders of sharks and advocates for their conservation. Despite experiencing a traumatic event, the power of survivors to use this experience in a positive manner adds a unique and powerful aspect to communicating the importance of shark conservation. To quote shark attack survivor Paul De Gelder, “They're not our sharks to kill... It's a natural predator, an apex predator, it's essential to the ecosystem of the ocean.”

Not all sharks are built equally, but all occupy key positions and roles in marine food webs. As apex predators, they keep populations of other animals in check. For example, tiger sharks help to control populations of turtles and dugongs which graze on seagrass: an important habitat that provides shelter and food for smaller fish and invertebrates to grow and reproduce. Without sharks, we may see more ecosystem collapses that ultimately affect us; in both Japan and America, the overfishing of sharks has caused several shellfish fisheries to collapse because of the increase in rays (which eat shellfish) that would otherwise be eaten by sharks.

 WE ARE THEIR WORST ENEMY AND GREATEST HOPE

We are the shark’s worst enemy and also its greatest hope. Over-fishing is currently estimated to kill an average of 100 million sharks per year. Shark populations are not as resilient as other fish, as they take several years to reach sexual maturity and only give birth to relatively few young. However, our improved knowledge of their role in our oceans has led to finning bans and the creation of sustainable fisheries. We can indeed live with sharks and, by recognising the value of them, we add value to our oceans and in turn add value to our lives.

Two blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) cruising the rocky reefs of Aliwal Shoal, South Africa. Photographed by Leonardo Guida

Two blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) cruising the rocky reefs of Aliwal Shoal, South Africa. Photographed by Leonardo Guida

Banner image courtesy of National Geographic