Thursday, January 28, 2010

Question #4: Are you afraid of the shark?

Sunnye Dreyfus, South Africa Expedition

"A mindless eating machine, it will attack and devour anything." JAWS trailer, 1975

"Sharks are big, confident and intelligent creatures that explore everything in their environment." Allison Kock, shark biologist, Save Our Seas Foundation

photo credit

On January 12th, a white shark made the headlines of the major Cape Town papers. A swimmer* from Zimbabwe was bitten in Fish Hoek, a popular resort area located in False Bay just south of Cape Town. The man was killed by this shark, which was not seen by the spotters due to murky water conditions. The area does not have shark nets, but does employ the eyes of shark spotters who are posted on the tops of coastal mountains. Using binoculars, their mission is to spot sharks swimming near beaches and radio to lifeguards on the beach. The lifeguards then raise a white flag with a black shark on it and sound a siren to warn swimmers. There were shark sightings and a warning issued the day before the encounter.

False Bay, South Africa
This event was unique (and obviously tragic) for both human and shark, which have had a particularly tumultuous relationship since 1975. It's amazing how a simple movie can boil a fine-tuned apex predator down to "a mindless eating machine." What do you get when you combine Benchley's story, Spielberg and Butler's vision, and John Williams' infamous cellos? Decades of swimmers shaking in their board shorts and in special cases (like myself) fearing shark attacks at the deep end of swimming pools. I convinced myself that Jaws could find his/her way through the pool drain. I'm not even kidding.
(note to self: this is a photoshopped image. Do not use as an excuse to skip exercise.)

Although we humans are a few hundred million years or so behind white sharks in terms of evolution, I was completely surprised by the lack of sensationalism in the media. The South African press, by and large, portrayed the event as it was, playing nothing up or down, but rather using the tragedy as a platform for education. Information linked to the event included:
  • White sharks are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
  • White sharks are apex predators.
  • White sharks are usually offshore to Seal Island in the winter and are closer to shore in the summer months.
  • False Bay has recently been experiencing a spike in white shark sightings.
  • False Bay is a hub for large schools of fish.
  • 70% of shark/human encounters are not predatory.
  • the longest journey of a fish ever recorded was of a great white making a round trip from South Africa to Australia.
  • The last shark bite fatality in False Bay was in 2004.
  • There is still so much we don't know about white sharks.
Conservation Considerations:
Unless we relentlessly continue to scratch the surface, our fear of what lies beneath remains.
Wildlife List:
  1. Steppe Eagle
  2. Black eagle
  3. Sacred ibis
  4. Spectacled dormouse (it was licking cheese off the bread knife at our campsite)
  5. Baboons, baboons, baboons
  6. Dog piles of African penguins

African Sacred Ibis

- Sunnye

*My condolences to the family of Lloyd Skinner.

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