The bigger predator

Shark proof wetsuit

I remember reading a while ago about the development of a wetsuit designed to steer sharks away from surfers and swimmers- a development cleverly built upon a shark’s inability to distinguish between colours – which seemed perfect for keeping water-lovers out of danger. However recently, the news of a shark cull enforced by the Western Australian government is beginning to once again highlight sharks as a threat to human lives.

Approximately, five humans are killed by sharks each year, compared to the startling 100 million sharks that we slaughter1, 2. So when making shark fin soup (a worryingly popular dish served in China) becomes as easy as making beans on toast, what exactly is it that gives these fish such a bad name? Existing on the planet around 420 million years before we arrived, I’m pretty sure sharks would have found a stable food source before we appeared as a miniscule speck on their evolutionary timeline. And they did – fish, and perhaps the odd seal which might come as a birthday treat. In fact, despite grimacing an impressive set of 30,000 teeth over their lifetime, one of the last items on a shark’s diet plan is Kevin from across the road. Or Mary from work. Or that annoying grandson that your sister brings round too much. Or anyone in fact. Human blood to sharks is what that reduced BLT sandwich in the corner of Tesco’s is to us – tempting to start with but after the first bite realising there are better things for lunch in the adjacent aisle – or in a shark’s case, another 50 metres underwater. Otherwise why on earth would the majority of shark attacks be one-leg bites as opposed to entire human consumption? Yet we still consider the possibility of losing a leg when swimming out more than fifty metres in any vaguely warm water. Out of the 350-plus different species of shark, three are considered to be ‘dangerous’ to humans- the great white, bull and tiger. Although found in a number of different oceans – as well as lakes and rivers – these species rarely venture above a few hundred metres below sea level. So unless your next summer vacation is underwater somewhere in the middle of the pacific, the likelihood is you will be able to enjoy a shallow snorkel and a ‘99 Flake on the beach in peace.

The small number of attacks that do make it to headlines are typically down to holidaymakers swimming too far out at sea or surfers splashing in a seal-like manner at the water’s surface. With two extra senses – electroreception which picks up electrical fields, and lateral line detecting changes in water pressure3 – sharks are pretty well-adapted to hunting, and we are often seen as an easy target. But even so, most sharks would be uninterested in ruining our beach volleyball game or sandcastles for a bite of something they know won’t taste that great. Somehow even a ‘disaster’ story about some ninety-something year old who clumsily fell off a harbour only to then have a toe bitten by a 6 inch shark somehow has the potential to send the country into worry. In addition to exaggerated news stories, terribly edited sea-themed ‘horror’ movies such an Open Water (which really is rubbish) don’t exactly steer away from the ‘predator’ label. It would be unjustified to blame Spielberg’s blockbuster entirely on the wariness of humans towards these animals, however you can’t help but wonder whether there would be fewer shark stereotypes if Jaws had never made it to production.

So when more people are killed by vending machines each year than sharks, perhaps Australia’s government budget should be put to better use. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be useful to add a few more precautionary signs on high-risk beaches and that the ‘shark-friendly’ wetsuit isn’t an incredibly clever idea, however it may be sensible to consider – out of us and them – who the bigger predator is.

1 (Accessed Jan 2014)

2  100 million sharks killed each year, say scientists (March 2013) The Guardian

3 (Accessed Jan 2014)

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