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Shark Week is upon us, which inevitably brings out the shark fan in even your least-expecting friends. Even those that could not care less about marine life indulge in some aspect of Shark Week, be it the numerous drinking games surrounding it, attack-umentaries (you know what I’m talking about, the documentaries solely revolving around shark attacks), made-for-Shark Week movies, or whatever tickles your fancy. On the other hand, maybe you’re one of my people—the year-round shark fan, who have been scoffed at since you were little when you answered “sharks” after people asked your favorite animal—who can’t help but get a tiny bit annoyed while watching all of these Shark Week fans crawl out of the woodwork. While we appreciate shark fans of all variety (because let’s be honest, these guys need more love) we also want to set the record straight and help you to help our marine friends, and quit perpetuating shark myths and stereotypes. Let’s work together towards flipping that script from fearing to revering these beautiful ocean dwellers, living everyday like Shark Week, and potentially saving our oceans along the way by debunking some of the five most common shark myths.
MYTH: Sharks are man-eating killing machines.
Facts are Facts: As I’ve heard it succinctly put, “We are not prey, we are in the way.” Sharks do not have humans on their radar as a food source—so don’t think you’re swimming with a giant target on your back. In fact, most “attacks” on humans are a result of poor water visibility leading to a mistaken identity (we humans can look a LOT like seals—a natural prey—from below) or inquisitive bites—meaning they are trying to determine if you are food or not. If a shark was seeking us out as a food source, we would see far more fatalities and far less bites. Citing the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF), incidents of shark attacks are divided into five different categories. The two most common categories are “Provoked” in which it is stated that “the shark was hooked, speared, captured or in which a human drew ‘first blood’” and “unprovoked” which is classified as “when a shark perceives a human as a threat or competitor for a food source.”
MYTH: A shark is just a dumb animal with a brain the size of a walnut.
Facts are Facts: Maybe it’s because some of them may seem like giant swimming dumpsters (we’re looking at you, tiger shark), or because they’re just one of the most misunderstood animals—but the truth is, a shark’s brain is complex and sophisticated. Sharks can actually exhibit complex social behavior, including communicating with body language, and some species live in groups, and even hunt in packs. Not to mention the fact that their acute sense of smell accounts for two thirds of their brain being dedicated to its olfactory organs, which allows them to find food sources and potential mates, along with recognizing prey and aquatic territorial markers—all of which is of the utmost importance to a shark’s essential wellbeing. Sharks are so intelligent, in fact, that they are able to be trained!
MYTH: The only good shark is a dead shark.
Facts are Facts: Not only are they absolutely beautiful creatures that should be respected as any other animal is, but they play an integral role in keeping marine ecosystems both balanced and healthy. Not only that, but they do play a huge part in ecotourism in some areas (according to MarAlliance, we are talking upwards of $25.5 million annually in Australia). Do you realize how much tourists (and locals for that matter) will pay for the chance to dive with sharks? It’s definitely not cheap.
MYTH: Shark fins are delicious, and will grow back after they are cut off.
Facts are Facts: Not only do shark fins have zero flavor—but they have zero nutritional value. They will also not regenerate after they are cut off, which means that in typical finning practices where they are thrown overboard after having their fits cut off, they are left to drown, bleed to death, or even be eaten by other sharks or other marine life.
MYTH: Sharks have endless rows of teeth.
Facts are Facts: Contrary to popular belief, sharks don’t come out of the womb with a mouthful of chompers lined up and ready to go when one falls out. Not-so-technically speaking, a shark’s pearly whites regenerate as needed. For comparison: a human tooth rests in a socket and falls out (hopefully/typically) once in their lifetime. A shark’s tooth, on the other hand, is attached by soft tissue to a layer of skin that covers their jaw- which makes it very easy for the tooth to fall out if they wear or break. Shark teeth are arranged in progressive rows, and should one fall out, the next one behind it moves up to take its spot. Each shark mouth is different, and with that being said—the amount of rows of teeth it can produce varies. Sharks are constantly losing teeth throughout their lifetime—which usually equates to over thousands of teeth lost in a lifetime! (Someone needs to give the shark tooth fairy a raise—she’s most definitely working overtime, and probably beyond broke).
MYTH: Sharks have zero predators.
Facts are Facts: Although this should come as no surprise to any of us reading this—the greatest threat to sharks are HUMANS. Each year, tens of millions of sharks are killed solely for their fins. That isn’t taking into account the number of sharks that are killed in shark culls, as by catch, and sport fishing.
With the rise in high level shark fishing comes the diminishing of shark populations. Since sharks grow slow, have relatively few offspring, and take a long time to mature—they just can’t sustain high levels of fishing and the population essentially collapses.
So there you have it—a little bit of a deeper dive (see what I did there) into the life of these ocean beauties. Now, go ahead and watch your Shark Week- but be sure to focus on the conservation and science side of it—because Discovery has really amped that up this year after backlash the past few—and not so much the sensationalizing of these fantastic creatures. If you’d like a few suggestions on what you absolutely should check out:
- Galapagos : Realm of Giant Sharks
- This is Your Ocean: Sharks
- Of Shark and Man