Thursday, December 15, 2005

Close encounter with a great white shark

In the interest of expanding his education – he’s led a very sheltered life in North Wales up to now – we asked travelling writer Riath Al-Samarrai to look at some wildlife for us. This isn’t exactly what we envisaged….Riath Al-Samarrai:“Is this safe Andre?”“Yes”“Are you sure?”“Yes”“And no one has ever been hurt?”“Yes”“Yes they have or yes, no one has been hurt?”“Yes”“OK Andre, shall I just get in the cage?”“That’s up to you.”So I slipped a mask over my eyes, chomped down on a snorkel and entered the lair of the Great White shark. The water was cold, just cold enough to take my attention away from the fish guts floating around me, and it was very murky. As I stared through the bars of the dented steel cage all I could see were hundreds of fish feasting on the chum in the water. I knew there were sharks out there. After all this was the White Shark Adventures tour and sharks are, as you would assume, integral to their business. But I waited. And waited some more. Occasionally I’d pop my head above the water and take a look around, but through the waves and the bars of my cell – the only cell I’d happily inhabit given the circumstances – all I could see was the seal-shaped lure used to entice the star attraction. There wasn’t a fin in sight, but it gave me time to wonder why there were dents in the cage. Suddenly a burst of excitement spread through the boat. “It’s so big” I could hear them saying as they pointed to a spot just a few metres in front of me, yet still I saw nothing. “This must be a hoax” I thought, there wasn’t even a fin and in the Jaws films you always saw a fin.Andre instructed me to get my head down. Underwater something, and it wasn’t hard to guess what, had come along and frightened away the fish. But where was Jaws? It was mysterious. Here I was, floating in the waters of South Africa, hysteria breaking out around me and a shark apparently within feet of a journalist steak, but I hadn’t a clue where it was. Then, as I was plotting the next line of this article, comparing the disappearance of the fish to the rippling water in Jurassic Park every time the T-Rex turned up, came a loud bang, a shudder and a sight more startling than any big lizard tearing up a theme park. Just before my eyes snapped shut I got a real life glimpse of what has horrified children and adults alike ever since Steven Spielberg’s fictional shark brought terror to Amity Island. About half a foot away from my face there it was, Carcharodon Carcharias; a Great White shark to those without a degree in marine biology. Later I was told it, or she as one of the experts onboard identified, was three metres long. At the time I didn’t have my measuring tape to hand, just a camera which I had bought with every intention of using. No use, my movements at this point were purely instinctive and nothing gets you covering your face like the sight of 300 teeth, spread over three rows and each sculpted to slice through meat. They looked like Stanley knife blades, most were about one and a half inches long, and later I was told they come down with a force of 20,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and only a crocodile’s bite is more powerful. Her gums were red, her nose was heavily scarred and her eyes were rolled into the back of her skull leaving a lifeless socket. She had come from nowhere and had I been swimming without the cage the first I would have known about her presence would have been the feeling of 300 teeth in my backside. The missing fin wasn’t because a soup restaurant took liberties with a growingly endangered species – in fact sharks have been protected in South Africa since 1991 – but because the concept of a circling fin is a myth. Likewise most things we are taught by Jaws. Shortly before my conversation with Andre concerning the security of the cage’ I mentioned the scene in the first Jaws movie, the one where the fearsome fish tears Richard Dreyfuss’s steel cage to pieces in pursuit of a human-flesh lunch. “You watch too much television,” Dirk, one of White Shark Adventures’ experts, told me. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know, but his message and that of all the companies operating a similar trade in these waters, is a pertinent one. “Sharks can be very dangerous. They are the most skilled predators on the planet, but they are very misunderstood. Most people know them from the film, but almost all of that film is inaccurate.”Almost all of it is. The bits they got right are, yes, sharks live in the water and yes, they are capable of killing humans. What was not accurate was the part, kind of crucial to the film, where sharks go around eating people for fun. “Sharks are graceful creatures,” Andre, the boat’s skipper, explained in his talk as we arrived at the site not far from Gansbaai. “They can kill people and sometimes do, but as a rule sharks do not eat humans. They do not like the taste; too bony. They eat fish 95 percent of the time and the rest are seals and dead whales. “A shark does not have hands and feet so its way of feeling something is with its mouth. This means it will often inspect something it thinks could be food by biting. That does not make it an evil creature that just shows how it survives.”So why did that big menacing fish come charging at my cage? “The shark was not attacking the cage. The sharks are actually afraid of the cage, but it hit the cage because it was not looking where it was going. You see, when a shark goes after its prey it normally swims quite far beneath the water’s surface and then approaches from below and behind. But when it gets close to the prey it rolls its eyes back as a defence mechanism. When the shark hit the cage that’s because it was going after the seal lure, which we drag close to the cage so you can see the sharks, and then when it is about to bite it charges blindly.”Problem solved, the shark wasn’t trying to scupper my story, she just closed her eyes and missed the seal. No problem, unless you happen to be the taster sample that particular day. But what is really refreshing about the White Shark Adventure experience is the distinct lack of effort the guides make in creating excuses for the shark. They are not here to show the shark to be cuddly when in fact it is macho and sitting comfortably on top of the ocean food chain. What they do is educate visitors about this creature, and how it has survived on earth for 45 million years and is now threatened in its existence because humans invade their territory and take liberties. The act of humans entering the ocean, where sharks are the ultimate predator (though killer whales have been known to eat sharks) is tantamount, they explain, to walking into someone else’s living room and sticking a harpoon through their chest. They even dispute one of the most widespread excuses made for the shark, when people talk of mistaken identity in that a shark will only attack a human thinking it is a seal or other tasty snack. White Shark Adventures dismiss that notion. They believe, and it is supported by the National Geographic’s research, that sharks attack surface creatures out of curiosity. They don’t know what exactly is swimming around above them so they take a bite and find out. They are not stupid, nor is their sight so poor they must sniff for blood to find their way around (though they can detect a drop of blood the size of a match-stick head in an Olympic sized swimming pool), rather they have excellent eyesight and follow their basic instincts to find food. “They are just surviving,” Andre says, “And so far, if you look at how long they have been on Earth, they are pretty good at it. It’s a shame people cannot respect that.“We do these tours so people can see the sharks and see just how impressive they are in their kingdom. People getting attacked by sharks is just a tragic accident (there are less than ten fatal accidents a year, making it statistically more likely that you will die travelling to the beach than even see a shark), and the fear is largely irrational. Yes, they are dangerous, but so are cars. We just want people to respect their place and their uniqueness and not have these wrong ideas.”But nowadays things might have changed and sharks are not just being fished out of the water out of fear. Of the 200 million sharks slaughtered last year, a vast bulk would have gone towards creating shark fin soup – a process involving the fishing of sharks, who then have their fins cut off, before being thrown back to die – while others are used, as Andre says, “as trophies”. Indeed a set of Great White shark jaws can now fetch up to $15,000 in the United States of America. It hits home how wrong that is when you see them in their natural environment. They swim gracefully and do what they have to do to survive. Half the problem is people’s fear of the unknown, and as Great Whites are too wild to keep in captivity, public opinion is formed solely by films and a sensationalist media every time an attack occurs. While we were on the boat watching the shark inspect the bait, sometimes opting to make a snap at it, other times just happy to dive away out of sight, you appreciate they are just doing what they have always done. But while people find it easy to detest elephant poachers – after all the film Dumbo did show just how lovely flying elephants can be – it is not so easy to find empathy for a creature which can eat you. “But then people cannot appreciate this is a living creature, they see it as a hunter out to get them” Andre adds. The work of the White Shark Adventures Company and others spreading the same message is valuable in changing opinions, but they fear, as Andre earlier told me, it might not be enough. “If people don’t change their minds about sharks, soon there will be no sharks. Humans have no right to go into the shark’s territory and kill a creature they do not understand.”


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