Why sharks are in the soup! Author celebrates sharks and encourages readers to change their attitudes towards the incredible beasts – insisting they aren’t terrifying killers
- Mankind is killing so many sharks that the sea creatures future is in doubt
- William McKeever calls for a change in our attitude towards sharks in a book
- Sharks hardly ever attack humans, there are about four fatalities a year globally
- He reflects on a teacher in Australia allowing her students to swim near a shark
EMPERORS OF THE DEEP
by William McKeever (William Collins £20, 272 pp)
Sharks are older than trees. The creatures first appeared 450 million years ago, way before those tall things with leaves.
They’ve survived several extinction-level events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs. Yet now they face the biggest danger of all: us. Mankind is killing so many sharks that their future is in doubt.
William McKeever’s book is a celebration of these incredible beasts, and a call for us to change our attitudes to them.
Those attitudes were heavily influenced by one man: Peter Benchley. His novel Jaws sold more than 20 million copies, and the movie it inspired terrified a whole generation into seeing sharks as killers, intent on devouring the occupant of every inflatable lilo they can find.
William McKeever celebrates sharks and calls for a change in our attitude towards the incredible beasts in a new book. Pictured: A great white shark in Mexico
But the truth is sharks hardly ever attack humans, and even when they do only 5 per cent of victims die. This equates to about four fatalities a year worldwide. Ants kill 30 people a year in the U.S. alone.
Most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity — the animal assumes that a surfer’s splashing foot is a fish, or that a surfboard is a seal or turtle. Sharks simply don’t view humans as prey.
McKeever gets a vivid demonstration of this in the Bahamas, where his diving guide feeds reef sharks with fish held on the end of a spear. The guide deliberately positions one fish just a foot from McKeever’s face. The shark swims in, evaluates the situation, chooses the fish then swims away.
On another trip, to the coast of Australia, McKeever sees a teacher with her class of ten-year-old children about to go for a swim. He warns her that there’s a whitetip shark nearby. The teacher says it’s fine. He repeats the warning, but the teacher sends the kids in anyway. ‘Instead of stalking the children, the shark turned suddenly and headed out to sea,’ he writes.
As miracles of nature, sharks take some beating. Their jaws can generate forces of three tonnes per square centimetre, allowing them to snack on turtles, whose shells protect them from just about every other creature in the sea. Their teeth are constantly replaced, with new ones ousting old ones from behind. A large shark goes through 30,000 in a lifetime.
Sharks have a layer of tissue behind their retina that reflects light for a second time, improving their eyesight as they search for prey in the murky ocean depths.
And the hammerhead has two noses. As an odour will reach them at slightly different times, it can monitor which direction the scent is coming from, giving it one more advantage over its potential meal.
Sharks even go to the barber. Or at least the barberfish. This is a species that feeds on crustaceans and parasites clinging to a shark’s skin. The shark slows to a stop, allowing a dozen of the fish to get to work. Once it has been cleaned, it moves on and another shark takes its place.
Humans kill 100 million sharks a year, the shark trade is partly due to the demand for popular Asian dish shark-fin soup (file image)
It’s no wonder that sharks are wary of humans: we kill 100 million of them a year.
In fact Peter Benchley, years after the success of Jaws, saw the damage for himself while scuba diving off the coast of Costa Rica. Littering the seabed were the corpses of sharks with their fins cut off. It’s a common practice — they’re thrown back into the sea while still alive and, unable to swim, simply sink to their deaths. For the rest of his life the author committed himself to changing the public’s perception of the creature he’d done so much to demonise.
The shark trade is partly due to the demand for shark-fin soup, which is popular in Asia. There are also shark-skin shoes and handbags, while some people believe that eating the animal’s cartilage will help treat cancer.
This is based on the utterly mistaken notion that sharks don’t get cancer themselves. Even if that were true, says one expert, eating shark products wouldn’t cure cancer ‘any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball’.
EMPERORS OF THE DEEP by William McKeever (William Collins £20, 272 pp)
The reason fishing poses such a threat to shark numbers is that many of the females, when caught, haven’t had time to breed. They often don’t become mothers until they’re 20 or 30. (Great whites can live to 70, while it’s thought the Greenland shark might reach 400, making it easily the longest-living vertebrate in the world.)
Methods of birth vary — some shark species lay egg-like cases which hatch, while others hatch their eggs inside the womb and give birth to live pups.
The tiger shark, for instance, usually delivers 30 to 40 pups at a time. Carrying so many young obviously requires serious space: in some species the female is larger than the male. A great white can reach the same length and weight as an adult giraffe.
Sharks’ sex lives are fairly eye-watering, too. The male has two ‘claspers’ (as Aristotle christened the penis-like organs), although he only uses one at a time. He inserts it into the female, then splays its tip open ‘like an umbrella’ to lock it in place.
To earn the right to do this in the first place, males compete by performing ‘bounce dives’ — rapid swimming patterns which require great stamina. The female observes them all, then chooses the most impressive.
Finally, if you still need convincing that Jaws doesn’t see you as dinner, take the tiger shark caught in 1935 off New South Wales in Australia. Among the items in its stomach was a human arm.
As the limb featured a distinctive tattoo, the police had little trouble in identifying the victim. It was a man who had been murdered and chopped up, his body parts thrown into the water. The killer was a human. The shark was innocent.
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