Q: I’d like to go cruising, but I’m not so keen on sharks. Do you see many? Are they a problem?
A: Ah, sharks. On my list of Things People Worry About On Our Behalf, they sit second only to pirates. And I understand that. They are strong, fast, and have those excellent triangular teeth that just scream out “higher predator!” The media doesn’t help this image. If you go watching shows with names like Ten Deadliest Sharks, then you are feeding your fears. As my mother would say, don’t put beans up your nose.
Short answer: you do not need to curtail your cruising plans because of sharks. We have two issues to deal with here: what am I looking at? and how do I behave?
First of all, “shark” is not a monolithic category of bulked-up fish on a killing spree. There is a big gap between your kind and gentle sharks, like plankton-eating whale sharks, and your eating machines, like the ever-popular great white shark. So do your homework, and find out what sharks are going to be where you are. For our part, we do a lot of snorkelling over shallow reefs. That means that, most of the time, we see blacktip reef sharks, or vakis, as they call them in the Tuamotus.
|Just doing his thing on the reef in Makemo.|
The ones we see are normally about my size. And I’ll admit, it is a little disconcerting the first time a shark swims past you only ten feet away. It is a little more disconcerting when the shark comes back for a second look. But it makes sense: they are curious, and their life depends on sizing up the other “fish” they meet. Last year, we sailed to a remote, rarely-visited motu. There was no village nearby, so no one fished there, which meant the area was essentially wild. Erik and I did a drift snorkel through the pass, and at one point looked down to see a bed of twenty grey reef sharks (raira in Pumotu) resting below us. I won’t say my stomach didn’t give a small lurch. But we ignored them and they ignored us, and everyone went home with all of their limbs.
This leads me to my point around behavior, which I can sum up this way: don’t be an idiot. Don’t swim in murky water, or at dusk, or where somebody is cleaning fish nearby. Don’t touch a shark. Don’t chase it, don’t poke it, don’t scare it, don’t chum it. Just watch. All else being equal, you’ll be fine. Your riskiest moment in shark-infested waters (I can’t believe I just got to write “shark-infested waters” in a literal usage. I love this blog.) comes when you are fishing. If you are in the water spear fishing and you hit a fish, get that fish out of the water immediately, because this is the moment when sharks become actively dangerous. Sharks detect the pressure variations caused by an injured fish thrashing around, and can smell minute traces of fish blood (they are not interested in human blood, I might add) up to a quarter mile away. When you hit a fish, the sharks will come, and fast. Do not get between a shark and and an injured fish. Better you lose dinner than lose your hand.
Some sharks are always a little risky, even if you are behaving yourself. According to the International Shark Attack File, the vast majority of attacks come from tiger sharks, bull sharks, and great white sharks. Yes, these sharks are more aggressive than our friends the vakis. But the short answer is, they don’t want to eat you. They want to eat everything. Indy has an early reader about sharks (the cover is pictured above), and her favorite section shows things found in their stomachs.
I find this oddly comforting. Think of great white sharks as the goats of the sea. They are indiscriminate. There isn’t a whole lot of thinking going on; it is more “I see it, I eat it.” So don’t take it personally, and, if they worry you, don’t swim in places that have great whites. I know I wouldn’t. But, vakis? No worries. We know how to leave each other be.
But really, all of this is looking at the issue backwards. Sharks aren’t a problem. In fact, sharks are absolutely necessary. They are what is called a keystone species, which means that they exert an important regulatory effect on an ecosystem, both in terms of the fish they eat and how their presence affects the behavior of other animals in the system. When you lose sharks, you gain problems. So the reefs and the open ocean need sharks.
And sharks are really, truly, beautiful creatures.
When you get beyond your fear of those big, sharp teeth, you can appreciate how lovely these fish really are. They are a joy to watch in the water, and it is a great privilege to swim beside them. We have seen sharks of all sorts – lemon sharks, nurse sharks, whitetip reef sharks, vakis, rairas, hammerheads. We have seen sharks smaller than Indy, and 12 foot behemoths. They are beautiful to watch. Yes, they can be dangerous, but so is driving your car. I think we would all be better off to spend more effort learning about sharks and protecting their place in the oceans than being afraid they maybe might bite us.
And so I will leave you on that note. Don’t worry about sharks. Just leave them alone, watch them and enjoy.