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8 reasons sharks are misunderstood

8 reasons sharks are misunderstood

Sharks often get the short end of the fin when it comes to how they’re portrayed. As Sharkfest continues on National Geographic WILD, we ask three shark experts to bite into the stigma surrounding these majestic (and often misjudged) animals  

By Laura Rutkowski, Staff Writer

Jaws has a lot to answer for. The film fuelled our fear of sharks, but the author of the book actually regretted writing his tale of terror. Peter Benchley, who also co-wrote the screenplay, devoted the rest of his life to the conservation of sharks, defending them against the very reputation Jaws gave them.


All of our experts mention the movie as one of the main negative influences on how we perceive sharks. Other blockbusters that demonise sharks (inaccurately) include The Meg, The Shallows and Deep Blue Sea, which Emmy-winning wildlife cinematographer and field producer Andy Casagrande calls “entertainment films”, which is all they are. “You can have entertainment – it can be exciting, it can be dangerous, it can be sketchy – but it’s got to be factual and true. Sharks are inherently amazing as is. You don’t really need them hyped up.”

It’s easy to understand why the facts don’t make it into the films, especially when they’re as grim as this: globally, 11,000 sharks are taken out of the water per hour. That’s two to three sharks killed every second due to any number of reasons, including finning, culling, shark fishing or longlining bycatch. It’s an irreplaceable, unsustainable amount.


“After Jaws came out, there were too many people saying the only good shark is a dead shark. It turns out the only good shark is a live shark,” says marine ecologist Dr Mike Heithaus. But we’re not doing a very good job at making sure they “just keep swimming” – the magnitude of population decline is more than 90% for some shark species.


You're gonna need a bigger harpoon to take down the stigma surrounding sharks!

These stats aren’t publicised as front-page news, but shark incidents certainly are, even though the numbers are small. Around the world, there were only 64 confirmed shark attacks last year and just five of these proved to be fatal. “Most people don’t have first-hand experience with sharks, so when you show everybody that sharks are monsters, they believe that,” says Kori Garza, a marine biologist, expedition leader and conservationist based in French Polynesia.


“One of the incredible things about Sharkfest is putting good media and knowledge out there. People swimming with sharks, ecotourism and social media have helped a lot as well. It’s slowly getting better,” she adds.


Since sharks can’t explain what we frequently misunderstand about them, we’ve asked the experts to weigh in and debunk some myths so we can move on from Jaws to awws.

1. Sharks have individual behaviours and personalities

Kori Garza: Anyone can have a Labrador, but every Labrador is gonna have different mannerisms and different ways that it carries itself. Sharks are like that too. Tiger sharks are mostly solitary and don’t have a lot of interaction with other sharks. Nobody teaches them how to be a shark, so they develop their personalities themselves.


Mike Heithaus: When people think of sharks, they think of big, bitey sharks, right? In fact, there are more than 500 species of sharks and they’re not all top predators. They range from ones the size of your hand when they’re fully grown, to giant whale sharks and basking sharks. You can’t just say a shark’s a shark’s a shark. There’s a lot of variation among individuals.


Yep, that’s a shark – a baby Atlantic sharpnose that will reach an average length of about 95 cm.

Andy Casagrande: Sharks are the most polite and professional predators on the planet. All sharks have unique personalities – they’re incredible, very charismatic, powerful, dangerous – and if you understand the limits of how far you can push a certain personality or how close you can get to a certain shark, you’ll be fine. You have to read the environment psychologically and biologically.

2. They’re intelligent

Kori Garza, known as “Ladyshark” to her friends and family, actually became passionate about sharks after watching Jaws, with some added inspiration from Steve Irwin. 

It’s hard to say if sharks recognise us. If it’s visual, we’re not always wearing the same thing. We change our wetsuits, we change our dive gear. It sounds very New Age, but sharks have all these different receptors inside of them, so they actually can sense your magnetic field.


Each person has a unique magnetic field around them. It’s a combination of your synapses and your neurons firing, your heartbeat and your blood flow rate in the friction between your muscles and the way you move. If anything, they would recognise that, but they do recognise different boat engines and different sounds. They have a much stronger response to the engines that are associated with feeding and they don’t waste their time on the ones that don’t feed.


MH: There’s still a lot of work to do on shark neurobiology and intelligence, but there’s no question that these animals are incredibly well adapted to their environment, are able to do really impressive things and respond to novel stimuli. Dr Samuel Gruber showed that you can teach lemon sharks to run mazes. They also navigate incredible distances and show up in the right spot at the right time for certain prey. We still don’t know how they do that.

3. They help with climate issues

Dr Mike Heithaus is the dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education and professor within the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University. 

Our work in Australia has shown that tiger sharks keep the sea turtles and dugongs, which are sea cows, from feeding in big, shallow areas. That lets the seagrass grow into these huge bushy seagrass beds that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it in the sediment. Those sea bushes are also a really great habitat for small shrimp, baby fish and all those species that grow up to be things that people catch.


If we lost sharks, we’d probably have a complete meltdown of that seagrass ecosystem. In certain areas, smaller species would start to overeat their prey. We don’t know if that would be played out on coral reefs or in the open ocean. We’re working right now to understand how, where, when and why sharks are important to ecosystems, so we know how to protect and restore ecosystems that people rely on. 


4. It would be a disaster if sharks became extinct

KG: You know the game Jenga? Sharks are kind of the base for the ocean, they’re like the white blood cells, the immune system, they keep everything in balance. It’s just this giant cohesive ecosystem – if you take that out, you’re watching a systematic collapse. I think humans are the only population that if you take them out, the Earth gets better.


As we spoke to Andy Casagrande, who has worked on more than 100 wildlife films, he was preparing to hop on a plane for his next shoot! 

It’s simply a matter of co-existing with predators instead of killing them. We can’t eradicate everything that poses a threat to human life. If we did, we’d have to eradicate cars and cigarettes and alcohol, anything that kills us more than sharks, which is essentially everything.

5. New research shows that eating shark fin soup is hazardous to your health

In the inhumane process of finning, fins are removed from sharks and then they’re thrown back into the ocean, often still alive but no longer able to swim.

MH: Shark fin soup has been a status and cultural thing. It’s served at weddings and in other traditional settings. That’s why the education is so important, because a lot of the demand is driven by people who don’t necessarily know what the implications are.


Research [conducted by Florida International University] from May shows dangerously high levels of mercury in shark fins sampled from markets in China and Hong Kong. On average, the mercury levels were six to ten times higher than what a safe level of mercury would be considered in Hong Kong. When humans have prolonged exposure to mercury, this can lead to brain and central nervous system damage, as well as interfere with foetal cognitive development.


6. Sharks are really just big softies

In World’s Biggest Tiger Shark?, tiger shark expert Garza swims alongside Kamakai, who she says was the “biggest toothy shark” she’s ever seen up close.

KG: I’m obsessed with the tiger shark’s belly – it’s like this soft marshmallow fluff. Sometimes when you have to redirect them, they’ll do this rolling thing and your hand just sinks in like [it would on] a mattress.


When orcas predate on great whites, they hit them from underneath in the belly, because that’s the soft spot. It’s really rare for a tiger shark to even let you near that area, just because that is their most vulnerable position. So when they do let me get close to the belly, I’m always like, “Oh, he/she trusts me,” and I always feel so proud.


7. They don’t really want to eat us

Those teeth say: “All the better to eat – we mean greet – you with.”

KG: You hear all the crazy statistics that you’re more likely to die from a falling coconut or a vending machine or to get struck by lightning than get killed by a shark, yet people are so scared of sharks. When you think about the number of people going in and out of the water safely every day across the world at every beach, that number is beyond imagination.


There’s no maternal instinct in the shark world, so when a shark is born, it’s totally on its own. When human babies want to figure out what something is, they put it in their mouth. All of the sensory systems of a shark are in the mouth, so for them to see some weird, floppy thing on the surface in murky water putting off all these vibrations, they’re like, “What is that? Can I eat that? Is that an injured thing?” Then they bite and they’re like, “Ugh, that’s disgusting,” spit it out and they go on their way. Why would sharks know that humans are food when we don’t typically exist in their world?


If sharks were attacking people and consuming people, there wouldn’t be shark attack survivors, there would be missing people reports. Sharks are incredibly capable predators. If they wanted to eat a human, we’re practically a jellyfish in the water in comparison to the capability of a shark. People are very fragile and sharks have very big mouths and it’s just a really unfortunate misunderstanding. Just a quick exploratory bite is enough to cause a lot of damage.


“Did you guys know that the monster in Jaws isn’t a great white shark like me, but actually Mayor Larry Vaughn and his capitalist ideology? Chew on that!”

MH: People think of sharks as mindless killing machines, but they’re incredible predators that do a whole lot in their lives besides just eat. When it comes to big prey, more often than not, sharks are not going to mess with it. They’re going to go after things that are 10% of their own body size or less. Another misconception is if there’s a shark, there will be an attack and that is not the case.


AC: Sometimes they know you’re not what they normally eat, but you’re swimming around on their dinner table. They’re gonna sample you and see what you are if they’re hungry enough, but clearly, we’re not really on the menu.


8. We are more of a threat to sharks than they are to us – and they need our help

KG: In Australia, they use shark nets that are supposed to keep the swimmers safe, but they’re killing humpback whales, dolphins, turtles and sharks. They actually pay the government to go out and kill tiger sharks, but it’s not really effective, because species like tiger sharks are constantly moving. If you kill one today, it’s just gonna be replaced by one tomorrow.


People normally want to save things that are cute and cuddly. That’s why whales, dolphins and pandas get all of the conservation attention in the world, but people don’t really want to save something they’re scared of or that looks scary. It’s really important to shift that perception of sharks. They are really beautiful, they’re gorgeous animals.


For the first time on camera, Casagrande and Garza captured hunting tactics of juvenile tiger sharks (which are usually a solitary species) in World’s Biggest Tiger Shark?.

AC: We must continue to make documentaries about them and what they do when they’re not around the boats being taunted by tuna and blood and chum. What do they do when they’re actually being real sharks?


MH: We need those people who are afraid of sharks to tune in [to Sharkfest] so we have that opportunity to show them how amazing they are. Just like any other big cool predators, like lions and tigers and bears, sharks deserve our respect and protection.

When is National Geographic WILD’s Sharkfest on TV?

Sharkfest continues on National Geographic WILD/HD (CH 264/265) tonight until Sunday 26 July. Check out the remaining line-up below.


Thursday 23 July

America’s Deadliest Sharks, 8pm


Friday 24 July

United Sharks Of America, 8pm


Sunday 26 July

When Sharks Attack: Tropical Terror, 9pm


Catch Dr Mike Heithaus in Raging Bull Shark; Andy Casagrande in World’s Biggest Tiger Shark? and Most Wanted Sharks; and Kori Garza in World’s Biggest Tiger Shark?. These shows, as well as the 17 documentaries premiered during Sharkfest, will be available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > National Geographic.

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Image credits: National Geographic