Thursday, August 18, 2011

Where it's Shark Week every week

© Shark Trust
There aren't many true certainties in life, but if nothing else, we can be sure to be never more than a few weeks away from another Shark Week.

What sounds like an annual event seems to happen with alarming regularity, as good patrons of the Discovery Channel will know: a seven-day festival of hefty, triangular-toothed fish zig-zagging ominously through the brine, launching themselves like piscine missiles at unsuspecting seals, or chewing away on scraps of tuna lobbed into the sea by "experts" to drum up business for the cameras.

Sharks are amongst the majestic of all apex predators - perhaps the most incredible creatures in Earth's vast and open menagerie. For all their menace and undeserved reputation, they are also one of the greatest pieces of design in both the animate and inanimate worlds.

Cars should look like sharks - most fighter jets already do, and surely boys (let's face it, we chaps are more likely to give a crap about this sort of thing) wouldn't we all want our cars to look like fighter jets?

The shark is an incredible survivor. It has managed to stay at the top of the food chain for millennia, just getting on with being the biggest beastie on the block with the Don't [expletive deleted] With Me attitude.

Being the European landlubber I am, I've yet to see a proper shark up close. I've seen lemon and baby leopard sharks at the excellent Museum of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and the Monterey Aquarium, but never one of the real monsters we, Peter Benchley and Shark Weeks passim have been guilty of demonising. I've driven up and down California's Pacific Coast Highway in the vain hope of seeing a large dorsal fin break the surface, but alas, nothing. And that unconvincing lump of animatronic rubber at Universal Studios certainly doesn't count.

All this points to one, simple realisation. Sharks live where they do, we live where we do. Just as I'd be surprised to be sat opposite a Great White in the Paris Metro tomorrow morning, I'm sure Jaws would be equally curious to find me swimming around his back garden.

Which brings me to this week's tragedy in the Seychelles, in which British honeymooner Ian Redmond was fatally attacked by - according to local  authorities - a "rogue shark". The perpetrator - most likely a bad-tempered Bull Shark - is now being hunted down in case it turns out to be the shark responsible for killing a French diver in the same area earlier this month.

Bull sharks are notoriously aggressive, prone to foraging in shallow water, and have even been known to swim into freshwater inlets and rivers. Admittedly, that does change the odds a bit, but you still stand more chance of getting knocked down crossing the street than you do being attacked by a shark - even in shark habitats.

© Shark Trust
Sadly, the Seychellois authorities need to hunt down Ian Redmond's killer, not out of revenge, but to remove a threat to the Seychelles' vital tourist economy.

With shark numbers being heavily eroded by the savage practice of chopping off their fins to make soup, leaving these animals to bleed to death, taking another out for having made the mistake of targeting one of us is unfortunate.

As tragic as it is for Ian's now widowed bride and their families, a shark attacking a human is no more rogue behaviour than your pet cat biting your finger. If we humans put ourselves in someone else's environment - especially when that someone else is a perfectly evolved predator weighing anything up to 700 pounds and over 11 feet long - we must play the odds.

It's the same as putting ourselves - and, specifically, our schoolchildren - on an Arctic ice flow, in an area known to be inhabited by polar bears. These are probably the ultimate apex predators, which means that one whiff of human to a creature starved by shrinking habitat is only going to end badly.

When Steven Spielberg's Jaws came out, the film was justifiably hailed for its tremendous suspense. It was, ultimately, a sophisticated slasher movie, with the chief antagonist being a shark rather than a lunatic in a hockey mask. Sadly, it cast a shadow over an animal that has been hard to lose. We should respect sharks and respect their habitats. And yes, sadly, we will continue to have tragic encounters with them, but not without remembering that we humans run into them where they live, not the other way around.

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