Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why Portraying Sharks as "Attackers" is Wrong


As one of the few people who has conducted a long term ethological study of sharks, and the only one who went alone to watch them under a wide variety of circumstances, I have long acquaintance with the phenomenon of fear. Often it took all my psychological force to compose my mind in order to overcome it, when things went wrong, and I found myself in tossing waters opaque with blood, and solid with excited sharks, in an unexpected situation for which I was unprepared.
For years, people told me, and I believed myself, that one day I would be bitten, and would bleed to death, or faint and drown, in consequence. Since I was alone, far from shore, often as night was falling, I could expect no one to save me.
These circumstances enhanced what appeared to be an instinctive tendency to react with darkening consciousness and soaring terror to certain visual cues. Yet, no matter what happened, no shark bit me, time after time.
Once I accidentally kicked one hard in the side--I didn't realize that the six foot animal was between my legs as I frantically tried to right myself in powerful current. I watched, appalled, expecting her to instantly turn and slash, but there was no change in either her speed nor trajectory as she curved around to lazily circle me. After many years, I could no longer dismiss their failure to bite as random coincidence. No other species with whom I had even a fraction of the intimacy I shared with sharks, had failed to bite me, either by accident or in a fit of pique. Why not all those sharks, hundreds of them, of four different species, some many times my size? It was something that exercised me often--for years my mind went over the question like an octopus over a crab in a jar, trying to understand.
Paddling my heavy kayak the long way home beneath the stars, after yet another terrifying incident, I would think it out again. Finally I developed the theory that our fear of sharks is based on the intrinsic knowledge that animals like us open their mouths instinctively to bite when they come in aggressive attack. Most other mammals, and most birds in my experience tend to do this, and certainly the great terrestrial predators, including primates, do. The mouth opens automatically, as part of the attack.
Us western humans, of course, are conditioned not to bite, but one can still become aware in extremities, that this instinct is present under the veneer of civilized conduct. So we assume--it just seems most natural--that sharks will behave that way too. But they don't. I believe that they do not share this instinct with us. And that is the key. With those mouths and shocking sets of teeth, our imaginations are undone considering them opening to bite us. I have formed the theory from watching them, that on the contrary, they have an inborn inhibition against biting companion animals. They don't regard us as prey, so they apparently view us as other animals in their ecological community.
Even the great white shark has been shown (by Professor Peter Klimley), to have a ritualized conflict when ownership of a seal prey comes into question. The shark who can splash water highest and farthest with its tail wins the seal, so a battle, which would gravely harm both sharks, given their dentition, is avoided. I have not yet found a researcher who has witnessed sharks fighting with each other, as we, and other mammals and birds often do. (Mating is not the same thing). So it wrongs them to suggest that they, like us, use their mouths in aggressive attacks.
Unfortunately, this instinctive fear has been used by the media to entertain us with horror shows, starring sharks as the only known monsters in the sea, and the resulting shark attack mania is one of the great obstacles to shark conservation.
Most of this information was conveyed to Paul Gasek et al at Discovery as part of our discourse over why their portrayal of sharks is wrong.

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