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Who’s the monster? The myth about sharks

by Darren

To see the map, please click here. Thanks to CASA, UCL for providing the mapping service.

Kelvin Murray is a professional diver and naturalist, providing services to the expedition and media industries.  He is an Invited Contributor to the Ocean Layer of Google Earth, working with Dr. Sylvia Earle’s SEAlliance to provide ocean stories and images for the world to share. Explore the ocean with them and help protect the blue heart of our planet.  Watch Kelvin’s short video about sharks under threat in Costa Rica.

What’s the issue?

“This shark, swallow you whole!  Little shakin’, little tenderisin’, an’ down you go.” – preaches crusty shark fisherman Quint after scraping his nails down the blackboard in Spielberg’s 1975 film ‘Jaws.’  To many, the giant rubber monster of the movie munching its way through the cast epitomises this particular family of marine creatures and has certainly contributed to the demonising of these much-misunderstood animals.  A mere 35 years later, a family of species that has been around for nearly 400 million years is suffering genocidal levels of hunting.  Estimates vary but a stupefying 38 to 100 million sharks are killed each year, mostly to support the Asian shark-fin soup trade, however this marine bogeyman is not getting the protection and public sympathy it deserves.

Part of the reason sharks are in such big trouble is that many people still see them as monsters, as mindless killers patrolling our beaches just waiting to snatch and devour us.  There is no denying that these are superbly adapted, highly capable apex predators and unfortunately there are attacks and humans do die.  Awful tragedies these may be, such attacks are very, very rare and do not warrant the exaggerated media attention which often ensues.  The notion of feeding sharks being in a ‘frenzy’ is probably much more applicable to sensationalist ‘journalism,’ for want of a better word.  Our unwarranted fear of them is such that some believe the only good shark is a dead shark.  Despite our fondness for surfing, boating, windsurfing, waterskiing, paddling, snorkelling, swimming, diving you have a less than 1 in 264.1 million chance of being killed by a shark.  You are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut or your own toaster.

Out of nearly 400 shark species only four have been involved in fatal unprovoked attacks – the Great White, Tiger, Bull and Oceanic Whitetip.  I have dived with three of those and I’m looking forward to writing ‘saw Tiger shark’ in my diving logbook.  In all, it has been my privilege to dive with over twenty species of shark.  Sharks have surrounded me.  They have swum between my legs.  They have invited me to swim next to them.  These animals are magnificent, awe-inspiring and beautiful.  I tell people I enjoy diving with sharks and they still view me as being slightly mental.  Convincing a friend that sharks are cool is one thing, but it takes more work to convince a company, a government, or a culture.  Sharks urgently need our help, whether we like them or not, and I’m pretty sure that getting to know them better is a very good start.

Why are you passionate about it?

I am passionate about saving sharks because if we don’t become their friends, if we don’t make a stand on their behalf, if we don’t try to make a difference, it is entirely possible we could have oceans without sharks.  That is unthinkable – not just on a personal level, there is a bigger picture too.

Why should others be passionate about it?

Sharks are vital; they are absolutely essential components of healthy oceans.  You should care because losing sharks from our oceans has a knock-on effect throughout the entire marine ecosystem.  If you care for sharks, you care for the world.  You care for your moral and social responsibility, you care for the world your children will grow up in, you care for your livelihood.  You choose.

What can others do to help?

– Inform yourself and don’t believe the hype, then tell people.
– Post a link to twitter, facebook or whatever social networks you use
– Tell your friends, your family and everyone you know.
– When you hear people spreading myths about sharks, let them know the facts.
– Be a friend of sharks, stick up for them, and act on their behalf.

Why will people taking action help?

Collectively many small whispers become a shout.  Recently I went for lunch with about a dozen of my girlfriend’s family – they changed the choice of restaurant because I pointed out the shark-fin soup on the menu, now twelve more people know a little bit more about sharks.  People are often surprised to hear the truth about sharks, and few stand by the stereotypical view as they learn more about them.

We are a pretty smart species, so why do we still believe in mythological beasts?  The notion of a shark, any shark, being a savage, mindless, frenzied man-eater is about as real to me as unicorns, mermaids and the Loch Ness Monster.  Looking at the current body count on both sides, you tell me – shark or mankind – who’s the real monster?  It’s not too late; we can all still become friends of the shark and make the world a better place.

Further information

In researching this article I came across some very scary people with mind-bendingly ignorant attitudes.  Just as we have to combat discrimination and intolerance regarding race, sex, religion, age, politics, football or whether you like Marmite or not, we also need to adopt a balanced, reasonable view of sharks.  Trust me, they are very cool.

Further information is available at these sites:

Shark Trust
Shark Alliance
Save our Seas
Stop Shark Finning