Saturday, 13 May 2017

Why I Turned to Sharks

I was a wildlife artist when my husband and I moved to Tahiti, so I went out each morning looking for something to paint. The fringe lagoons lay glimmering turquoise and silver under a ringing blue sky, protected by a barrier reef and sheltering an intricate lighted world that put fantasy to shame. Fish of every imaginable shape and colour gazed from the coral formations, ranged across the white sand, and travelled purposefully though the blue. There seemed to be so much life that even the water sparkled with it.

One morning I was roaming upon the barrier reef, lost in a spell. The sunshine ran in golden lines across the coral and flashed upon the fish. It was mesmerizing. When I raised my eyes, a grey shark of about my size was moving languidly towards me and all my lights went on. Everything about her was just right—her curves, her fins, her face—the inarguable shape of shark. Nothing had prepared me for the sight of that splendid creature gliding forth through the rushing landscape, as graceful as a snake.

Having observed the wildlife of the mountains all my life, my knowledge of sharks was limited to the information gained from watching the movie JAWS many years before. All that remained from that brief education was that they bit and badly. Very badly. Essentially, if you met one you died.

So, expecting her to fly into attack mode at the sight of me, I held my breath and drifted behind a coral. But she paid me not the slightest attention as she passed just a metre away. Her smug little face actually looked bored. I moved to keep the coral between us, but when I peeked out to see her again, she was gone as if she never had been. Soon after that, a second shark passed close by from behind as I headed homeward one evening at twilight. Breathless at such fluid beauty and understated power, I followed. But she quickly drew ahead, became a moving shadow, and vanished in the darkness.

I began to seek out sharks each day on my underwater forays. I loved to explore along the barrier reef and peer across it under the layer of pouring water. Sometimes a shark came wriggling across, surfing over the reef to arrive in a cascade of champagne water. When the bubbles vanished, it often approached to turn a circle around me, its eye fixed on mine.

The shark was the first wild animal I had met who came to me instead of fleeing.

They were so intriguing. Shark behaviour was very different from that of the terrestrial wild animals I had known, and their intelligent flexibility and the complexity of their actions soon convinced me that they had been badly underestimated by science.

So I launched an intensive study of the reef sharks using the local lagoon, identifying each one by its markings, and keeping track of subsequent sightings. Soon I could recognize three hundred individuals on sight. I wanted to find out what they were like, not only as animals, but as individuals. I wanted to know them. Used to patiently observing wild animals for long periods, I treated them as I would any other new species. I had no preconceived ideas about them.

Being able to recognize them as individuals revealed a new dimension of their lives, and I had the feeling of a window opening onto another world, one so separate from human daily life that it might just as well have been on another planet.

But when, much later, I acquired an Internet connection, the information about sharks that I found on-line bore no relation to the animals I knew so well. Most entries mentioned only shark attacks, and discussions focused on those too, along with shark movies and shark fishing.

Everyone seemed to think that they were vicious. Indeed, the difference between true shark behaviour and their awful reputation was so exaggerated that most people, it seemed, should forget everything they had ever heard about sharks, and start learning about them all over again.

When I contacted Professor Arthur A. Myrberg, a shark ethologist at the University of Miami, he told me that no one else had studied sharks long-term underwater and encouraged me to publish my findings. Myrberg had worked with Konrad Lorenz and was a friend of Donald H. Griffin, author of Animal Minds, the seminal book establishing that animals are capable of thinking. 
Cognition is the word used to describe reasoning in animals, which is a process of sequential thinking that has nothing to do with instinctive reactions. Myrberg and several colleagues were searching for more evidence to support this important new field of zoology, called cognitive ethology.

So, when he was invited to speak on the subject of shark cognition at an international symposium at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Myrberg wrote to every known researcher—more than fifteen throughout the world—whose work had anything to do with shark behaviour. Yet no one had found any evidence that could even be speculated to suggest that sharks were thinking, and all but one doubted that such an ancient line of animals were capable of any higher mental abilities.

So he described the situation to me, concluding, "And so it must be shown, as difficult as it is to show, evidence that cognition may well be present rather than to disregard any consideration."

I had been keeping notes on apparent cognitive behaviour in wild animals for decades, so sent him several pages of examples of shark behaviour that suggested cognition. Arthur used my observations to form the bulk of his presentation at the symposium.

Afterwards, he wrote:

“Three days of talks and discussions resulted in agreement among those present that animal cognition can be openly discussed, and that term and its processes need not be treated as a non-scientific entity any longer."

Though more than a decade has passed, mine is still the only long-term underwater study of shark behaviour ever carried out. Traditional shark science is dominated by 'fisheries science,' which has denied any higher abilities to them, even the ability to feel pain. Nor has it offered much information about the way sharks behave, because the popular practice of shark tagging keeps the researcher at a distance from the animal.

My upcoming book, The True Nature of Sharks, fills the need for real information about sharks and the actions they take, to help debunk the destructive myths about them that have effectively erected a barrier to their conservation.

Here is information that can only be found by taking the time to observe these unusual creatures underwater, as animals and individuals, with an open mind.

Ila France Porcher  

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