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Why sharks are misunderstood

Why sharks are misunderstood

As Sharkfest celebrates ten years on National Geographic WILD, we ask three shark experts to bite into the stigma surrounding these majestic (and often misjudged) animals 

By Laura Rutkowski, Senior 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.


This notoriety has continued to persist in all forms of media, especially film – The Meg, The Shallows and Deep Blue Sea, to name a few notable culprits. Emmy-winning wildlife cinematographer and field producer Andy Casagrande waves these away as “entertainment”, but warns: “It’s got to be factual and true.” Since Jaws, that has not usually been the case.

Then again, it’s easy to understand why. The brutal reality for these creatures makes far grimmer viewing. Globally, more than 11,000 sharks are taken out of the water every hour, equating to two to three sharks killed every second, with reasons ranging from finning, culling, shark fishing or longlining bycatch. It’s an unsustainable, irreplaceable number.


“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. 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.

A scene from Jaws

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

Yet the headlines that trend aren’t about how we’re wiping out the shark population – they’re about how sharks are trying to take down ours. Although there were only 73 unprovoked shark attacks last year, and just 11 proved fatal, the amount of news dedicated to those confrontations is disproportionate to their scale. It’s the very definition of confirmation bias that sharks are monsters.


“One of the incredible things about Sharkfest is putting good media and knowledge out there,” says Kori Garza, a marine biologist, expedition leader and conservationist based in French Polynesia. “People swimming with sharks, ecotourism and social media have helped a lot as well. Most people don’t have first-hand experience with sharks, but it’s slowly getting better.”


Sharks often get the short end of the fin when it comes to how they’re portrayed. We’ve asked the experts to weigh in and debunk some myths so we can move on from Jaws to awws.

Sharks have individual behaviours and personalities

Mike Heithaus: You can’t just say a shark’s a shark’s a shark. There are more than 500 shark species 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. There’s a lot of variation among individuals.


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.


A baby Atlantic sharpnose

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

Andy Casagrande: 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.

They’re intelligent

Marine biologist Kori Garza

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.

They help with climate issues

Dr Mike Heithaus

Dr Mike Heithaus is executive 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. 


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.


Wildlife videographer Andy Casagrande

Andy Casagrande has worked on more than 100 wildlife films

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.

Research shows that eating shark fin soup is hazardous to your health

Shark fins drying on pallets

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 2020 shows dangerously high levels of mercury in shark fins sampled from markets in China and Hong Kong. On average, the mercury levels in samples from Hong Kong were six to ten times higher than what would be considered a safe level. Prolonged exposure to mercury can lead to brain and central nervous system damage in humans, as well as interfere with foetal cognitive development.


Sharks are really just big softies

Still from World's Biggest Tiger Shark?

Garza swims alongside tiger shark Kamakai, who is 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.


They don’t really want to eat us

Close-up of a shark's mouth

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.


A great white shark

“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.


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.


Still from World’s Biggest Tiger Shark?

Come to the shark side...

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 spans two weeks on National Geographic WILD HD (CH 265), from Sunday 17 July until Sunday 31 July. The shows are also available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > National Geographic. Catch Dr Mike Heithaus in Jaws Vs Boats. Check out the full sharky schedule below.


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Image credits: National Geographic