Why Sharks Are The Most Misunderstood
Creatures In The Ocean
As we launch our new Shark capsule, we take a deep dive into the world of the much-maligned animal
Ken Kiefer 2/Image Source/Getty Images
They were two notes that changed the world of cinema - E and F, F and F sharp – that iconic der-dun-der-dun of a predator stalking its prey. Composer John Williams’ score for the film Jaws still has the ability to shred nerves even now, 45 years after it was released. Williams described the melody as, “grinding away at you…instinctual, relentless, unstoppable”. But it was not just cinema that it changed – it also changed how we view an entire species of animal.
Jaws created an image of the shark as an out-and-out aggressor, a menace running free in the ocean. It was an image taken up with gusto by Hollywood studios. There have been, since Jaws, 87 films about sharks, including the 6-strong Sharknado film franchise, about a couple who are plagued by recurring encounters with sharks who have been sucked from the ocean by a tornado and deposited in their general vicinity. The premise is absurd but the message clear: you are never safe from the depredations of the shark.
This celluloid vilification reached such a peak after the release of The Shallows in 2016, that a group of marine biologists wrote an open letter to Columbia Pictures warning that portraying a Great White as vengeful was a gross and dangerous mischaracterisation. Still, though, the view remains of sharks as big, aggressive and immutably bad. But how far is that actually accurate? Are they really the monsters they have been portrayed to be? Or are they more sinned against than sinners? As we launch our new 14-piece shark capsule collection, which ranges from technical jackets, half-zip fleeces to swim briefs, we take a deep dive into the world of the shark.
The first thing to know about sharks is that they do not begin and end with the Great White, but rather exist in enormous variety. There are 500 different species that we currently know of. There are bioluminescent sharks, mother sharks (which stay pregnant for as much as two years), hound- and cat sharks, goblin sharks, even a carpet- and nurse shark. To say nothing of the latest discovery by marine biologists: the walking shark, which uses its fins as legs and can shuffle out of the water, from tidepool to tidepool, while holding its breath for up to an hour. In fact, according to marine biologists, of the 500 varieties, only 7 ever pose any danger to humans – and even then, only under extreme circumstances. As Dr Lauren Smith of Saltwater Life, a marine research and conservation organisation based in the UK, says, “sharks are wild animals and should be respected. I have been fortunate enough to encounter many species in the wild none of which have exhibited aggressive behaviour”
The truth is, in the relationship between humans and sharks, it’s the former who are often predatory, says Dr Smith. Blue sharks in the Atlantic are particularly under-threat and subject to unceasing slaughter. “Overfishing of sharks in an unregulated manner is their greatest threat, they are targeted for their meat and their fins. Destruction of important habitats such as mangroves which provide nursery habitats for many new-born shark species, also impact their survival,” says Dr Smith.
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Around 25-percent of shark species are currently endangered. It is not simply overfishing that has brought this about, either, but also the heating of the ocean (especially pertinent to Greenland sharks) and the pollution of the seas with plastic and other noxious substances.
If sharks were to disappear, the loss to the ecosystem would be profound. There would be a huge knock-on effect. “Some [shark] species are filter feeders, consuming tiny zooplankton, others predate on fish species, cephalopods, crustaceans and carrion. Some populations of sharks are very localised, while others migrate vast distances. Interactions between species within ecosystems are complex and removing them as a result of overfishing or environmental damage will have widespread implications,” says Dr Smith.
The problem is the drive to conserve is hampered by the shark’s public image. It is hard to gather a groundswell of public support, let alone raise funds, for the conservation of an animal that is viewed as being a danger to everyone who so much as dips their toe in the ocean.
It remains to be seen whether our increasing knowledge about sharks, which has come about with the growing interest in the oceans and human’s effects on them, can change this.
Still, Dr Smith is hopeful for these kings of the oceans. “Undoubtedly the sensationalised aggressive portrayal of sharks in films and media have perpetuated the negative misconceptions about them. But, that being said, I’ve also spoken with many people that first became fascinated by sharks as a result of a film and since then have endeavoured to learn more about sharks and have become, shark conservation supporters, shark educators and shark researchers.”
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