Whether or not you partake in the sensation that has become Shark Week, it attracts an incredibly wide audience whom hold deep interest in the deep sea creatures. This year’s shark-filled TV fest kicks off on August 10, and while fan favorites recapping shark attacks and aggression will be in the line-up, the week will also highlight some more educational programs of the dangers shark face from us humans.
One documentary in particular, “How Jaws Changed The World” will take a look at how Spielberg’s blockbuster changed the way the world views sharks, from the good push towards learning more about the creatures, to the obsession towards killing them. And modern times are no different. The fear and misunderstanding of the species has pushed governments to take matters into their own hands, starting Shark Safety programs that include netting off areas and in many cases culling. Many of the 10 beaches with the most shark attacks have these types of programs.
Environmentalists, animal-rights activists, and scientists are all against culling and fear the effects of killing off sharks on the underwater ecosystem, especially since sharks coming closer to shores is partly our own faults. The hunt for sharks often includes baiting, which can lead sharks closer to shore. But, the Shark Attack File (which we also used for the data to determine the 10 shark attack beaches), maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History explains that because of over-fishing and habitat loss, shark populations are actually decreasing. The reason for a steady rise of shark attacks since 1900 is because of the increasing amount of time we spend in the sea. But, as the continuous stream of shark attack media fills our screens, we are led to believe that it is the sharks who are the more dangerous counterpart.
Fear is powerful, but so is information. In 1963, a South Australian spear fisher named Rodney Fox was competing when he was attacked by a Great White shark. After over 462 stitches to piece him back together, the survivor went on to advocate for the protection of Great Whites instead of fearing them. “Since my attack I have been determined to share what I have learned about Great White Sharks and let people know that they are not the crazy man eaters that many people think,” Fox said. “There’s still a lot to learn, but for people to be able to safely view them is a start. To give people a better understanding is something I am proud of achieving. Sharks are a key predator at the top of the food chain and are essential for keeping our oceans healthy. We have to learn to live with sharks and not kill them through fear.”
Currently, Rodney Fox and his son Andrew run the company Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions while conducting onboard research through Fox Shark Research Foundation. I chatted with Andrew, the Director of the company, marine scientist, photographer and shark researcher who spends thousands of hours underwater with sharks. Andrew explained that we should be thankful that sharks aren’t more attracted to us, “it’s more a question of why they are not such a dangerous predator, as a few of the over 500 species of sharks are actually built and equipped to prey on and consume things our size.” He again added that most beaches are hotspots for shark attacks simply because more people swim there, and often bites are insignificant.
But just in case, I asked him what to do if you do see a shark while in the water. His response:
If you see a large potentially dangerous shark, remove yourself from the area as soon as possible, while as practical as possible also keeping your eyes on the shark and confronting its closer approaches. However with most species of sharks and even with some potentially dangerous ones, on most occasions we would encourage snorkelers and divers to enjoy the experience them as they are a special rare and beautiful animal that we are privileged to see. More education will help people determine the risk of the situation. This is nearly always extremely low, and that the sharks are nearly always more scared of you than you are of them and usually flee quickly. Obviously dirty low visibility water, or places where sharks are feeding is another matter.
As a researcher and shark enthusiast, Andrew believes that more education needs to be provided to the public. With research funding it can endorse greater conservation of sharks. And people need to understand that it is their choice to enter the water. Know the different types of sharks, and dangers they pose, pay attention to information at beaches of current and regular sightings, and swim at your own risk.