By Kate Zimmerman
IT was Shark Week on the Discovery Channel recently. Programming vacillated madly between trying to placate shark-paranoid viewers (selachophobics) and attempting to stir them once again into the hysterical froth that has abated only slightly since the film Jaws came out in 1975.
The two shows I watched attempted to excite us and calm us down in the space of one episode. In Bull Shark: World’s Deadliest Shark, English wildlife presenter Nigel Marven helpfully revealed that we needn’t just be petrified of swimming in tropical oceans, because the confluence of the freshwater Mississippi river and the Gulf of Mexico is also teeming with vicious bull sharks.
They are cute at the outset, suggested the vegetarian host of the show. He patted a young shark in a soothing way before warning us in a dire tone that in a few short years they’ll be giant torpedoes who’ll mow down our dogpaddling toddlers.
But apparently, the bull sharks’ aggressive behaviour is just the result of a misunderstanding and shouldn’t be held against them. Marven demonstrated that the glint of a ring on a finger at the surface of the water could easily be mistaken for a delicious fish. Bull sharks get hungry, just like the rest of us.
Then, as home viewers en route to tropical or Mississippi river vacations began coating their ring fingers with lard and wrenching at their wedding bands, Marven revealed that frenzied kicking, such as swimmers do to keep from being eaten, was, for a shark, like a casual invitation for sangria and tapas. Sharks can sense vibrations from a great distance and are attracted to them, he noted.
In a month or so, my family is going to Maui. So my 11-year-old son has been studying his favourite subject, sharks, more diligently than ever. He is now given to such remarks as, “You have a better chance of being killed by a vending machine than you do of being killed by a shark,” which certainly makes me glare suspiciously at vending machines. The difference between a vending machine and a shark, of course, is that vending machines don’t swim underneath you in tropical oceans, smacking their lips while sizing up your clumsily pedaling drumsticks.
Then again, neither do sharks, according to half the experts on display during Shark Week (the other half said they did). A documentary called Sharks on Trial made excuses for the diet of Great Whites, who seem to honk back Australian surfers for roughage. Seen from below, backlit by the sun, a surfer on a surfboard is supposedly a dead ringer for a seal. Since sharks pop delectably oily seals like the rest of us plough through cherries in July, how can they resist, the announcer implied.
This gave me no comfort whatsoever. I look like a seal at the best of times and do not even need to accessorize with a surfboard. While I contemplated my imminent demise, Sharks on Trial insinuated that sharks were not benign creatures who blundered along like Mr. Magoo, accidentally ingesting vacationers mid-chuckle, but remorseless killers like Tony Soprano. They also have fantastic eyesight, the anonymous narrator noted, which certainly cast that “Sorry, thought you were a seal” defence into question.
He went on to talk about “rogue sharks” who cut a swath through Australia’s best beaches, presumably while their more conventional relatives dutifully stayed away and said “Tsk, tsk.” He then quoted an expert who said there was no such thing as rogue sharks. In summing up, the narrator broadly hinted that, actually, rogue sharks were all around us and if we had any thoughts of going surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, or kayaking anywhere at all, we were nuts. At that point, I was prone to agree.
Television is the perfect medium for fomenting shark anxiety because the truth is, sharks are terribly unphotogenic. Up close they may cut a dashing figure (although few humans live to tell that tale) but those dead eyes, that underslung jaw, and those hopeless, nasty, pointy teeth remind the TV viewer of nothing so much as a hungover Shane McGowan of the Pogues.
If sharks were more attractive, with an eyelid or two to make a friendly wink possible, it would go a long way toward improving their global reputation. The fin is also a liability, implying that there’s something sinister going on under the surface. I’m not sure what to do there, though. The fin is the shark’s “brand.” You can’t mess with that.
Of course, many do. Sharks are hunted by humans precisely because hunters get a great price for those fins; they’re the key ingredient in shark’s fin soup. According to Sharks on Trial, hundreds of thousands of sharks are killed every year to make this delicacy possible, which makes man by far the worse predator.
I figure some sharks are aware of this and believe in Old Testament-style justice -- an eye for an eye, a spine for a fin. My proposal, and I admit to just a tad of self-interest, is that shark slaughtering and baiting stop, at least until I return from Maui. After that, the conservationists and the hunters can duke it out while I stay well away from balmy seas.