I fell in love with sharks in a lagoon in Tahiti, during fifteen years of underwater study of their natural behaviour. When they were finned for the criminal shark fin racket, I wrote down their story in a book called The Shark Sessions. I am still working to save these unexpectedly intelligent and friendly wild animals from extinction, and welcome your interest. Thank you for visiting!
Tuesday, 2 October 2007
Shark Attack Mania
Shark attack mania is a major obstacle to shark conservation, and seems to be quite obsessive to some, though baseless, considering the facts.
When I first came to Polynesia, twelve years ago, my gardener, Katoa, was my only source of information about the startling shark encounters I experienced when out in the lagoon. He was the only English speaker I knew, having fled the Cook Islands when they became independent and married a Tahitian so he could stay here. So all his life he had fished in traditional ways off the islands of the South Pacific. The question of what to do about sharks was an important one for me, since sometimes they appeared very close and circled me when I was alone a kilometer from land, and all I knew about them was what I had learned from watching "Jaws." I would watch their smug little faces as they turned around me and on the first occasion, felt actually disappointed by the lack of interest the fish displayed in me.
Once Katoa spoke of being especially harassed by sharks while trying to take possession of a fish he had speared. (He was unwilling to give his fishes away, preferring to defend them and take them home to his family). "Why didn't you just hold the fish above the surface and kick the shark?" I asked, having heard that was the best move to make, since it was the fish the shark wanted. He hooted at that, and told me that when his brother-in-law had tried it, the shark had bitten off his fin. "I told him," he said, "You were just lucky that the shark didn't bite your foot off!"
There was a tiny pass, a one foot deep depression, in the reef straight out from where I lived then, and when it was very calm, I used to slide through with the departing surge, and go exploring on the outer slope of the barrier reef. Katoa warned me that there were white tipped oceanic sharks out there, and to be on the look-out for them. He often saw them and drove them away by splashing the surface in front of their noses when they became a nuisance while he was fishing. The move worked much better with them than with black finned reef sharks, he told me, who just circled around and came back. They were the worst pests, he said.
"But those are the ones I see the most," I told him. "Never mind," he reassured me. "If one bites you, just scream and it will let go.
But this is the point: he was seeing oceanic white tipped sharks commonly. Now, they are gone. I wish I had made more of an effort to see them too.
As for the black finned reef sharks, no matter what happened, no one ever did bite me. Wanting them to accept me as companions in my efforts to know them as individuals and animals, I took them food from time to time, in between my excursions to swim with them. My favourite, Martha, would take a scrap the moment it left my hand. She was always in the right place at the right time, without ever accelerating. As an older female, she was about one and three quarter meters in length, and a heavy, powerful shark. The females are larger than the males, who are between a meter, and one and a quarter meters in length.
Martha would go to sniff my boat, and if she detected food in it, she would swim up to my face, over and over, and not leave me alone until I gave it to her. No matter where she was in the vicinity, when I turned towards my boat, she zoomed into place at my elbow to accompany me. I would take the little plastic bag and float the fish scraps out of it as the water filled with blood and fluids. She would coil up past my face, taking the few pieces one by one, paying no attention to the plastic, or the movements of my hands.
Once when I had been given a large load of scraps by a fish store, I was pushing it out of the boat and into the water, finning hard in order to hold myself as high above the surface as I could. And I kicked her, hard, in the side. Horrified, and sure she would turn and bite, I looked underwater to scrutinize the situation. A shark was a couple of inches under my mask, and several others were brushing by me; the water was solid with sharks, but in a moment I was able to make her out, showing no reaction at all to the kick, gliding downward to choose something to eat. (Martha was always a fussy eater, often picking things up and dropping them, leaving not a mark upon the scrap to show where her teeth had held it.)
There was another individual who spent only December to April in my area. (Each female has a different schedule--some are home-bodies, others are elsewhere half the time). I named her Carrelina for a square protrusion on her dorsal fin. She was immature when she first appeared one evening, poking around in the coral. She did the same thing the following three evenings, always at the same place and time, and after that she was consistently waiting with the rest of the sharks when I arrived. (They recognized the sound of my approaching kayak).
Each year, Carrelina became bolder. When I slid into the water, if I didn't move, and just watched them, the sharks I knew very well swam up to my nose one after another, turning away at the last moment, their way of greeting me. Carrelina joined them, but being young she moved very fast. Off and on for the entire hour or so I spent, until darkness veiled the sharks from my sight, every now and again she zoomed up to my face, then startled me by shooting over my shoulder from behind, only to turn like lightning and spend the next several minutes orbiting my head. No effort to dissuade her such slapping the surface of the water in front of her nose, or using the kayak as a barrier and banging on it had any effect. Day after day, week after week, during the four month period of her yearly visitations, she came zooming in at lightspeed, nearly every time I went to the lagoon. Of six hundred sharks I met, only Carrelina behaved in such an amazing fashion. Time after time I felt forced to lay my hand upon her head and turn her--and under my hand how vital she felt, how swiftly she turned. I was always ready to stiffen my arm to ensure that she did not ram me, to guide her around me, but she never tried. Still, she kept me on the alert. Each year her comportment was unchanged. She had no trouble remembering me, the situation, and my routine, year after year, though after she matured, mercifully she moved more slowly.
A famous elasmobranchologist wrote a paper specifically to try to prove that this species of shark is dangerous. He cited examples of sharks behaving as mine did, swimming up to him and turning away at the last minute, claiming that the shark would certainly have bitten had it not been slashed with a machete, or blown up with a power head before it was able to do so. He reported each close approach, which is usually due to curiosity, as a shark attack!
The only actual attacks, that is, bites, he could cite were ones that occurred when people were walking in shallow waters, and the sharks nipped them, apparently attracted by the splashing and mistaking the feet for flipping fish. And those were at Caroline Atoll. As it happens, my friend lived for two years on this uninhabited atoll, and wrote a book about his experiences. (Together Alone, by Ron Falconer) He and his family were used to the sharks' behaviour, following each foot with--I forget the expression he used--something like "excited attention" but he did not consider that the sharks were attacking, just attracted to the splashing--an honest rather than a biased assessment. His children and dog used to played with the sharks, with no harm coming to anyone. They considered them another part of the environment. (Its an excellent book and stunning story--you can get it from Amazon.com.)
The above mentioned elasmobranchologist who sought to prove the black finned reef shark dangerous, reveals his bias by stating in his paper that he was frightened by a member of this species only two feet in length (!!!) who appeared in the area where he was collecting fishes with rotenone. He actually became so frightened that he terminated his activity!
In his assessment later for his paper, the presence of the poison in the water and its possible effect on the shark was not taken into consideration. In another case in which a shark had frantically fought in shallow water while some jerk hacked him up with a machete, the fact that the shark was being cut up alive was not taken into consideration. The mortally wounded shark's behaviour was considered a 'shark attack.' Biased attitudes against sharks, even in science, have probably often resulted in poor observations, false assumptions, and slanted reporting. Then they were accepted as truth. I found the whole thing unbelievable--how such a lot of rot could have been accepted for publishing in a peer reviewed journal is beyond belief.
For a long time I believed that one day I would be accidentally bitten, but it never happened, no matter what went wrong. There was one time when the wind had risen so much during the half hour it took me to paddle out to the site, that I barely had the precariously balanced kayak under control. Instead of undulating languidly behind the boat as she usually did, Madonna, my shark one--she was still alive then, though later finned-- was swimming beneath it like a remora, and countless excited sharks were strung out along the surface behind me, following like children after the pied piper.
The fish shop had cleaned out its freezer, which was the only reason I was out there with this load of stuff; they had packed the scraps in sacks, and due to the wind, I had carefully strapped them on, feeling very conscientious!
But when I slid over the side, planning to tow the boat to the right place, it overturned, due to the high center of gravity. I had to locate my camera and some other things before righting the kayak, with white-caps washing over me and the tossing water opaque with blood and sharks. With the water-filled sacks strapped to it, it was quite impossible to get the heavy diving kayak upright again, so I had to reach under and feel my way to release the straps holding them, one by one.
When they finally fell free, I flipped the kayak upright, and moved into clear water to survey the situation. Greenish clouds of blood hung in the coral, obscuring the view, and through them flew the sharks, eerily emerging and disappearing. Avoiding the blood-scented water, I carried the bags of food one at a time to the sandy circle of the feeding site to dump them out, and once they were in the proper place, the sharks began to feed. No sack had been mauled; they had simply waited for me to put the food in place as usual, despite their evident excitement. Proof of this is offered by the fact that the scraps that had fallen free under the boat when it had overturned were left untouched. It was a remarkable example of how they expected and followed my routine, because once the scraps were in the site as usual, they all behaved as if they were starving to death.
When I first searched this species on Internet, the only references I could find for them were headed "shark attack!" I thought I had made a mistake until I had repeated the search using Carcharhinus melanopterus and came up with the same thing. I wrote to one of the sources, a well known university, to suggest that 14 bites in 500 years by the species is a negligible quantity, and should not be put forward so dramatically, particularly since there was practically no other information about the species. I got no reply, but a couple of years later the website was changed, suggesting that they were aware that since they were supposed to be scientific, maybe they should emphasize their shark attack mania less.
In intimate contact with most species, one is usually eventually bitten, whether it is accidentally by one's dog while playing, or intentionally by an irritated parrot, mouse, skunk, fish or chicken. These blackfinned reef sharks represent the only species I've been in intimate contact with that has not bitten me under any circumstances. Eventually I had to conclude that the strong belief that sharks are dangerous and will bite at any provocation fails to conform with reality, and that this species is inoffensive, and probably has an instinctive inhibition against biting companions, or other large animals.
It was one reason they became my favourites, of all the wild animals I have known: not only did they accept me amoung them, but never did they betray my trust and hurt me.