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A Case of Mistaken Identity

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It was one of those perfect summer days. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and from the look of the crowded beach, everyone had had the same idea: swimming. I walked across the hot sand until I found a place to put my towel. I sat down and looked around me. Everywhere people were laughing and having a good time, the mood was infectious, and I smiled. I looked out towards the ocean, a little girl who couldn’t have been older than four was sitting in the shallows, intently examining a hermit crab, whilst her mother carefully switched her watchful gaze between her and her brothers, who were laughing and splashing each other behind her.

Further out, a boy of seventeen held a fully clothed girl above the waves, threatening to drop her in as she screamed and giggled and begged him not to drop her, although you could tell from her smile that she was enjoying the attention. Much further out, three surfers sat in their wetsuits, propped up on their surfboards, waiting for that elusive perfect wave. And that’s when I saw it. A sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. There, on the surface of the water. A black shape, there one minute and gone the next.

But that was all it took for my blood to turn to ice. In a second, my stomach dropped and a sudden terrifying fear gripped me. I wanted to run and scream to them to get out of the water, but fear kept me routed to the spot, and the adrenalin pumping through my veins left me overwhelmed and unable to utter a single sound. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who had seen it, and the warning rang out from somewhere over to my left. A single terrifying word, first just a whisper and then screamed over the noise of the waves. “Toaster!”…

What? It’s not what you were expecting? Well of course not. Peter Benchley never wrote a book about the dangers of household appliances, and Stephen Spielberg never directed a movie that featured a toaster moving menacingly through the kitchen to two utterly terrifying notes, that sped up as it got closer and closer to its unwitting target, who was happily involved in some everyday task, not knowing that their life was about to be cut short. But, while toasters may have been a more realistic choice of nemesis, since Jaws was released in 1975, people from all over the world have been gripped and united by a single fear. A single word, able to illicit a mass panic: “Shark!”

The fact that last year alone, 791 people worldwide were killed by faulty toasters, while only 9 were killed by sharks, doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the slightest. Nor does the fact the more people are killed each year in the U.S. by dogs than have been killed in the last 100 years by sharks. That doesn’t change peoples’ opinions. They just keep letting their children play with rotweilers while they keep a fearful eye on the ocean surface every time they’re at the beach. But is it just ignorance?

Would things be different if people knew more about these animals? Or have people been so indoctrinated into thinking of sharks as the enemy that they no longer care whether or not it’s true? Would they care that because of the popularity in Asian countries of shark-fin soup, and as a result the exceptionally high price of shark fins on the black market, fisherman simply pull sharks onto their boats, cut off their fins and throw them back into the water alive and completely helpless, until they bleed to death or are eaten by other sharks? Do they realize that humans kill millions of sharks each year and that they have become so endangered that they have a lot more to fear from us, than we do from them?

   The Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias, has borne the brunt of this public hatred, and has been cast, due to media sensationalism and mass ignorance, as a mindless killing machine whose sole purpose is to hunt down and kill people who are enjoying a lovely day at the beach. And it’s not hard to see why people are afraid. Weighing in at an average of 5000 pounds and reaching a length of up to 20 feet, the Great White is the largest of the predatory fish (Klimley et al. 125). This highly adapted predator can propel itself through the water at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour and its mouth is lined with up to 3000 serrated teeth arranged in several rows. It has a highly developed sense of smell and can detect a drop of blood in 25 gallons of water or from 3miles away. However, recent research has shown that this apex predator is much more fearsome in our imaginations than in reality.

While, out of the approximately 100 annual shark attacks worldwide, one third to one half of which can be attributed to the Great White, these attacks are hardly ever fatal and researchers have determined that they are just due to “sample-biting” by the naturally curious animals. As sharks do not have hands, they cannot swim up to something that they see floating on top of the water and feel it and find out what it is, so their teeth are the only option. Sample-biting is therefore the only way that a shark can determine whether of not what he sees in something he wants to eat, or even just to find out what it is.  (www.nationalgeographic.com). While this may not be very comforting to those who have been “sampled” by a curious 5000 pound fish with 3000 teeth that can bite through bone, it does indicate that humans do not make up part of the sharks natural diet.


Figure 1: Showing the Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias, and its size relative to a bus (Skerry)

Found throughout cool coastal waters in all the oceans of the world, the Great White’s natural diet is made up of seals, sea lions, turtles, small toothed whales and carrion. The sharks play a very important role in marine ecosystems by keeping seal numbers under control and without them seal populations would devastate fish stocks around the world. Very little else is known about the sharks habits and lifestyle, and there is no reliable data about how many sharks there are throughout the world’s oceans but the animals are listed on CITES II.

This highly endangered nature and the important role that they play in marine ecosystems, led to the Great White being granted protected status by South Africa in 1991 and by California and Australia in 1994, making it illegal to kill Great Whites in these waters. Instead of fearing and killing the sharks in their waters, these countries have instead turned to shark related eco-tourism such as cage-diving, scuba diving and boat trips for tourists to observe the creatures in their natural habitat.

This eco-tourism generates millions of dollars every year and has also led to a greater understanding of these top predators. With help of the money generated from eco-tourism, research groups have been able to focus more on the further study of the sharks, with projects now underway such as the GPS tracking of sharks migration patterns and whether or not sharks are territorial. It is hoped that other countries may grant Great Whites protected status when they realize that instead of killing sharks in their waters, they could turn them into a tourist attraction and generate vast amounts of capital to increase their annual GDP.

Figure 2: Aerial photo of Great White and Kayaker (Peschak)


                Another misconception that people have about Great White Sharks is that if one is in the area, it is likely that someone will get attacked. The truth is that there are always sharks along the coastline and every time you get in the water there are probably at least two large sharks within 20m of you, more if you count juveniles and smaller shark species. As they are moving around, they probably come within a few meters of you at some time during your swim. This show’s just how uninterested in eating you sharks really are and also indicates just how rare shark are when you think of how many people swim in the ocean each day.

People also believe that shark nets will help to protect them from sharks, but this is not the case either. Shark nets can only be set up in calm water and are not, as most people believe, a physical barrier or fence used to keep sharks out of a swimming area. Most shark nets are in fact, just fishing nets, or gill nets, that are placed midway up the water column and used to “reduce” the numbers of sharks in the area by killing them, not by simply keeping them out of the shallows and in the deep water. Sharks swimming in the area do not see the nets in the murky waters and so they swim into them and become entangled in them, unable to move. The nets cut into the shark’s skin and the more it struggles to break free, the deeper the nets cut, also become entangled in its gills, making it hard to breath.

The effort that the shark exerts to get free as well as the stress and the lack of oxygen kills the sharks very quickly and once dead, they remain suspended in he nets. Other sharks in the area may come to feed off the carcasses and then become entangled themselves. Nets are lifted every 24 to 48 hours to prevent rotting of the dead animals. Ironically, researchers have noted that 35 – 50% of the sharks caught, are caught on the beach side of the nets (www.shark.co.za). Meaning the sharks had already swum under or over the net and had been swimming around near the beach before heading back out to sea when they were killed. Worst of all, shark nets kill thousands of other marine animals such as dolphins and turtles in by-catch each year, which become entangled in the nets and drown when they cannot get free.

           Of the number of Great White Shark attacks each year, most are perpetrated on surfers, and by looking at the shark’s natural feeding behavior, it’s not hard to understand why this is the case. In order to kill a seal, the Great White attacks from below. With its dark upper body blending into the ocean floor, a seal cannot see the shark as it glides up out of the depths. The seals dark body however, is well contrasted against the sunlit surface waters and makes a perfect target for the shark. Aiming at the seals body from an angel of 45 – 90 degrees (Klimley et al., 177), the shark increases his speed and hits the seal from below.

In False Bay in South Africa, where fur seals are its natural prey, a shark will even launch itself toward the seal with such force that it will breech and throw its whole body into the air.  Sitting in a black wetsuit on his surfboard far out in the ocean, waiting for the perfect wave to come along, it is not difficult to imagine how a shark could mistake the surfer for a seal. After all, they are the same size, the same color and they make the same pattern against the sunlit surface of the ocean. However, these attacks are rarely fatal and are just a case of mistaken identity. The shark may bite the surfer or his board, but will let go when he realizes that it is not the meal he ordered.


Figure 3: (a) A Great White breeching in False Bay, South Africa and (b) a surfboard after an attack (CBSnews)

            Our previous perceptions of the Great White were also just a case of mistaken identity, it is not just “. . . an eating machine. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks and that’s all” as quoted in Jaws in 1975. We now know that it is a miracle of evolution, the apex predator of the ocean, a highly adapted, sleek and beautiful animal that as survived unchanged for millennia. They are curious and intelligent and their streamlined, powerful bodies are ideally adapted for hunting seals and sea lions, their main prey items, and this means they fulfill an important role in marine ecosystems, regulating seal numbers which would otherwise devastate fish stocks.

Studies have even showed that Great Whites are immune to a number of diseases that effect humans, such as cancer and altziemers, and by studying these animals’ physiologies, we may be able to find a cure for them. As for the number of shark attacks on bathers and surfers each year, it can be said that we as ocean users are entering the shark’s natural habitat.

We cannot claim ownership of the Oceans, as sharks were hunting in them for millions of years before we came along and therefore when we decide to use the ocean for recreation, we should do so with respect for the most highly evolved predator on the planet. We should never let fear, ignorance and skewed perceptions of danger be used as an excuse for advocating the killing of Great White Sharks to keep our swimming beaches safer. After all, as the Director of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File stated, “Falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks.”

Even Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, had a change of heart, and before he died in 2006, he worked tirelessly as an advocate for shark conservation. He stated that if “the shark in an updated version of Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for, world-wide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”  Last year, 791 people were killed by toasters, 592 by chairs, 150 by falling coconuts and 9 by sharks. In contrast, 100 million sharks were killed by people.

It was one of those perfect summer days. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and from the look of the crowded waters, everyone had had the same idea: swimming. I swam through the cool blue seas and enjoyed the way the sunlight played across my back, warming the cool waters around me. I looked around me. Everyone was having a good time, the mood was infectious, and I smiled. I looked out towards the shore and that’s when I saw it. A sudden movement out of the corner of my eye, but that was all it took for my blood to turn to ice. In a second, my stomach dropped and a sudden terrifying fear gripped me. I wasn’t the only one who had seen it, and the warning rang out from somewhere behind me. A single terrifying word. “Humans!”…

Works Cited

Klimley, A. P., Anderson, S. D., Henderson, R. P., and Pyle, P. (1996) A description of predatory attacks by white sharks on pinnipeds. In “Great White Sharks: the biology of Carcharodon carcharias” (A. P. Klimley and D. G. Ainley, eds.), pp. 175-191

National Geographic Website. 2008. The Great White Shark: Biology and Behavior http://animals.nationalgeographic.com

The Natal Sharks Board Website: Shark Net Information and Statistics. 2007.   http://www.shark.co.za




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