A friendly shark visitor to our boat in Gansbaai, South Africa
An annual televised bash, this week is Shark Week. I know this, as I have spent way too many Friday nights in front of the Discovery Channel rewinding slow mo shark breaches and lamenting the fact that a bunch of whales have beached themselves en masse as they can’t bear to be apart from one another.
Apparently, Discovery Channel also run a Whale Week, which goes a little more unnoticed as whales do not tend to have the dramatic pull and Hollywood allure of the shark. Great White sharks mostly. I’ve never seen anyone get that excited over a Wobbegong.
I’ve seen more interesting shark specimens, myself.
Whales beat wobbegongs, at least, in the popularity stakes. Their habitual mass beachings usually get the locals all in a tizz and have led to several studies into what it is that makes them apparently launch into a suicide pact with a bunch of blubbery pals. Whales are intensely social animals. Their brains contain ‘spindle cells’ – which are the cells “which make us human” – neurons that enable feelings like love, emotional suffering, and which enable us to react to social situations. They are the catalyst that coerce you into buying a card emblazoned with the words “My love for you will last longer than Ned Stark’s head” for the object of your affections, the trigger that leaves you snivelling into a vat of gin when it all goes wrong and the signpost in our mind that points us in the right direction when manoeuvring through social interaction.
The fact that whales, dolphins and orcas have these neurons is disconcerting when you consider the fact that some of these animals are locked up in tanks for entertainment value. Separated from their families, often captured in the wild – taken from an ocean of possibilities, space and freedom and plonked into a glorified paddling pool. The death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau is a case in point for why orcas should not be held captive for the sake of splashing tourists and raking in some bucks.
If you haven’t already – see Blackfish – director Gabriela Cowperthwaite explores the history of keeping orcas in captivity and the incidents that have occurred as a result. It might make you cry and having your genitals ripped off by a killer whale does not sound like a barrel of laughs; but it’s eye opening, well informed and will hopefully make a real difference. SeaWorld need to realise that their original target audience is all grown up – we saw Free Willy; and these days we want to see these animals living free – we don’t want to stare at flopped over dorsal fins and a whale that can’t dive as deep or swim as far as is natural and healthy.
Orcas are the largest animal kept in captivity, according to PETA – who have written a nifty little article here on why marine animals shouldn’t be locked up in watery cells – http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/marine-animal-exhibits-chlorinated-prisons.aspx. Not many aquariums have taken a punt at keeping a Great White. At the time of writing, SeaWorld have not launched a Great White/human interactive show where you can watch the trainers ride on their backs or applaud as the shark balances a seal carcass on its nose – although with SeaWorld – you never know. Monterey Bay Aquarium have kept a few Great Whites in 3,800,000 litre ‘open sea’ exhibits, where they make behavioural studies and then release the shark back into the wild, using the shark’s stay as a promotional effort for a predator not usually viewed too favourably.
Ever since I can remember, I have had an unhealthy obsession with sharks, especially the king of apex predators – the Great White. Unhealthy?! you might ask. A heroin addiction, an unstoppable Greggs habit or a fixation on burning things could be described as unhealthy. Sharks can be admired from afar, in safety – i.e. from a photo, or on a cinema screen.
The ill health side of the coin comes into play when you start swimming with them. It tends to the add to the general bad malaise when you are missing a limb, or seem to have misplaced your torso.
The Australian Shark Attack File states that the last 50 years have seen 50 fatal shark attacks in the country – a nice round average of one per year. How neat and convenient.
Over ten months in late 2011 and into 2012 however, there were five fatal attacks in Western Australia alone. I was living there at the time, and as pro-shark as I am, being out in the water did come with a splash of added peril. It was not uncommon to see a cresting grey shape and shit yourself before you realised that it was a dolphin.
The government called for a cull, with WA Premier Colin Barnett announcing that it was no biggie, as they were “just fish”. Sure thing, Colin. We’ll pop you in a tank with a 15 foot long Great White and a potato cod so you can admire the similarities. Conservation groups were obviously riled up at this plan – and as a lover of all things shark, I was resolutely not on the bandwagon.
I wasn’t just worried about the inevitable pissed up bogans getting their tin boats together and sailing off to hook themselves a real life Jaws in their Bintang singlets, Bundy red cans held aloft. The ocean is the domain of ‘sea monsters’, and always has been since horny sailors were putting the moves on manatees. More simply put, the ocean is the sharks territory, not ours. We’re visitors in their great blue expanse, and we’d better wipe our feet on the sand before we go in.
Australia does love a cull, and often they are quite necessary. Cane toads are a blight on almost every native animal population in Queensland – soon even Irukandji jellyfish will be decimated because cane toads evolved gills and went swimming.
Kangaroo culling is a little more contentious, with one side arguing that the ‘roos damage ecosystems and are a threat to other indigenous wildlife; and the other pointing out that the kangaroos have been around for a pretty long time and have done a half decent job of managing their own population so far.
Animals are culled in Australia when they are perceived as a threat to local flora and fauna. Sharks are as much a threat to marine life along the Aussie coastline as any other ocean predator – from octopus to humpback whales. They eat what they need to, in order to survive. In fact, they play a very vital role in the smooth running of the ecosystem down there. They keep food webs in balance, and keep prey populations and habitats healthy. The only fauna that sharks pose a threat to is humans.
And what of the sharks? What if they floated around one day, observing the depleted fish stocks, the coral that has been bleached by human-caused global warming and the thousands of turtles, dolphins and their own kind that get trapped in nets and on drum lines every year and thought – “you know what guys? these humans have really got out of control. it’s time for a cull.”
Yes I love sharks, and yes I am biased. I also have not been stared down by a Great White without the safe haven of a cage around me, although I have swam with tiger sharks cage-free and am pleased to report that I am not dead. I have also stroked Great Whites on the nose from a boat on several occasions and they didn’t mistake my hand for a tuna.
I spent a month volunteering on a Great White cage diving boat in Gansbaai, South Africa; and was repeatedly blown away by the sharks that we saw. Majestic, agile and almost always giving off a remarkably calm aura. They were curious and playful, and any signs of aggression were purely as a result of baiting by the staff on the boat. I mean they probably weren’t even being aggressive. It’s just hard to look passive when you have a face the size of a Ford Focus and jaws full of Hattori Hanzo sharp teeth.
A great amount of the people that have survived brutal shark attacks are against reprisal in the form of going after the shark. Rodney Fox is a South Australian who was attacked by a Great White in 1963. His ribs were broken, his abdomen “fully exposed”, his lung ripped open and the main artery from his heart was exposed. He needed 450 stitches after the attack.
And yet even after being used as a chew toy, he dedicated his life to studying and observing the species that had almost killed him. He has made documentaries, led expeditions, founded the Fox Shark Research Foundation and designed the first underwater cage to dive with sharks.
I am not always hungry. I don’t walk down the street and grab every piece of food that I see, snatching burgers from the hands of innocent bystanders with wild abandon. Likewise, sharks are not constantly ravenous. They don’t have a burning need to eat every chubby seal or errant human that they come across. They’re always out there. Swimming or surfing off the coast of Western Australia, and many other places for that matter, the chances are that there is a shark somewhere in the vicinity. I’m sure that you could casually cruise past a Great White whilst paddling around in your Speedo and nine times out of ten, it wouldn’t be in the slightest bit bothered by your presence. Obviously the aim of the game is to avoid the one time out of ten when he’s still not bothered, but he’s eaten your head.