Have you ever been simultaneously afraid of and obsessed with something? That’s how I feel about sharks.
Sharks lurk. They lurk in the shadows beneath their prey, just out of sight, and they watch. Like calculating serial killers, they choose their victim. They prefer the weak, the ill, the young, the loners.
A study on great whites published in the Journal of Zoology shows that, far from being the mindless killers portrayed in Hollywood films and tabloids, sharks are sophisticated hunters.
“There’s some strategy going on,” said study co-author Neil Hammerschlag, a shark researcher at the University of Miami. During his research, he watched 340 great white attacks on seals in South Africa, and concluded that the sharks had a distinct mode of operation and even developed improved techniques as they aged.
It’s this idea that terrifies me. The stalking, the watching, the fact they could smell a drop of my blood from a quarter of a mile away.
We’ve all seen the slo-mo BBC footage of great whites breaching off the South Africa coast, muscular bodies breaking the surface, teeth-lined jaws agape, beady black eyes staring. They look nightmarish in attack mode, the closest to a real-life monster you could get.
This is because they’re perfectly evolved to kill. After 400 million years of evolution, they’ve learnt a thing or two about survival. They were around with the dinosaurs – and they survived whatever global catastrophe wiped them out. Scientists often refer to sharks as ‘living fossils’.
It’s easy to see why I would be afraid of sharks. But considering I’m more likely to be killed by a cow, mosquito, or even a rogue champagne cork than by a shark – my fear really is irrational.
Sharks are hunters, but they’re not natural man-eaters. The monster from JAWS never existed.
Around five people are killed by sharks every year, while we kill around 30 million sharks – mostly just for their fins, which are often sliced off while the shark is still alive before they’re tossed back into the sea to die.
Most shark attacks are a case of wrong place, wrong time. We look like seals flapping about on the surface. Often a shark will come in for one taster bite, realise we’re not food and leave us alone. Unfortunately for us, one bite from a big shark can easily be fatal.
Sharks are terrifying, but they are also fascinating. Big, ancient, awesome. Despite my fears, which extend to lakes, swimming pools and occasionally the bath, I would love to see one in the wild. Perhaps not while I’m paddling in my inflatable kayak, or swimming, or generally not expecting to see a shark. From a boat, in the company of experts, would be ideal.
I just hope we haven’t destroyed them all before I can afford that trip. I don’t know if that’s more of a comment about the state of my bank account than marine conservation.
If you haven’t seen the Shark programme on BBC, catch it on iPlayer here – the footage is beautiful.