Most people have probably heard the saying “you are more likely to die from a coconut falling on your head than you are to be killed by a shark” and I believe this to be 100% true. I believe this so whole heartedly as I have in fact seen a coconut fall on someone’s head however I have never in my entire life seen someone have a negative shark encounter. More so, I have even seen people pay good money to occupy the same waters as great white sharks and witness them enjoying every second of it. Of course I understand that “enjoying sharks” is not something that a majority of the world’s population do, however I hope that one day more people could begin to see the value of this important family of fish.
I wonder if it was JAWS that turned the world off of sharks, or if they were feared long before then. Floating cartilage takes many different forms in regards to these creatures, from a tiny Cookie Cutter Shark to a magnificent Whale Shark, with each species serving a very unique role in the oceanic ecosystem. I know you are not supposed to pick favourites, however my most favourite shark is definitely the Port Jackson Shark, or Dog Shark as it is otherwise known. It’s small but robust body is home to two defensive spines, a camo looking “skin” and the greatest skull formation in the entire world. If you have never seen a Port Jackson’s skull, I urge you to google it right now. The Port Jackson’s skull is so unique with its tooth formation whereby the teeth aren’t really teeth, but more mashing plates that appear to be scrunched up in order to fit inside of the mouth. These strange teeth substitutes are perfectly adapted for crushing crustaceans for a good hearty meal.
Port Jackson’s also give birth to leathery spiral eggs which I have often found washed up on the beach, I urge you to google these as well if you have never seen them, for they are not what you expect shark eggs to look like. These dog like sharks have their litter of eggs which they hatch in nurseries before raising the pups in a communal setting. Another fun topic to google is baby sharks as some species such as the Hammerhead, have live births and so baby Hammerheads are just really tiny and adorable miniature Hammerheads. Okay, I think that is enough googling for now.
Gansbaai (pronounced hans-bye) is arguably the cage diving capital of the world, and also the location I was privileged enough to work in for two weeks back in 2012. Gansbaai is one of the only locations where Great White Sharks have been seen to show breaching behaviour and let me tell you, to be on a boat and have a huge five meter shark jump out of the water and rise up to your level is truly something else. Something I have found to be very interesting about conservation biology is that recording morphological data for sharks uses the exact same methods as when similar data is recorded for African elephants. This method of “Mark Recapture” uses basic outlines of a shark and or elephant and allows you to pencil in the unique markings of your focal individual over the top of the outline in order to identify individuals. Sharks and elephants, who would have thought they were so similar!
If you want to become a millionaire, listen closely. Nobody knows exactly how great white sharks mate or court each other and if anybody filmed and or recorded this information they would be very popular in and amongst the shark scientist community. I have seen footage of smaller sharks mating, and let me tell you, seeing the way the male bites the female in order to hold on to her and the way she couldn’t muster the energy to swim away afterwards, it makes me feel very relieved to be a human in terms of reproductive strategies. This is the thing about biology, the more you learn about animal sex, the more you thank your lucky stars you were not born any other species.
Back in my undergraduate, we were watching footage from a shark shield experiment during a lecture one day, lead by a shark biologist whom always had shirtless pictures of himself wrangling sharks in his lecture slides. Needless to say, attendance was higher when he was presenting. The craziest thing happened as the shark swam toward the camera and almost engulfed it with it’s mouth.
My lecture theatre all said in unison.
“This is the weirdest reaction I have ever received from this footage”
Said my lecturer.
It is one of the great injustices of the world that sharks are made out to be the monsters of the ocean. It is in fact not wise to cull them from beaches as they play a very important role in controlling the numbers of second grade predators so that all the phyla beneath them do not go out of control in numbers. It is also not wise to hack off their fins and chuck them back into the ocean no matter how good they taste in soups. Sharks, in my opinion are highly charismatic, fascinating and essential beings to a fully functioning and regulated environment. If you don’t want to be around sharks and just respect them from afar, that’s okay too, just blow bubbles under water to scare them off. In the end it is best to remember, most things in the animal kingdom have more reasons to fear you than you have to fear them. If sharks have taught me anything, it is that humans are quick to judge books by their covers but seldom wish to read the mysteries and fascinating stories within them.