The latest edition of the Blue Planet Live had me sitting upright, my eyes on stalks and hands shaking in excitement. The above picture of the Shark Whisperer, Cristina Zenato, kissing a shark, while other giants were awaiting their turn to have a cuddle, is the best indication of how surreal it was to watch this moment live on a TV screen. Most of us remember the film Jaws, and we relive the fear, which we felt while watching it, every time we hear on the news about someone being killed by a shark. And we are massively wrong. It is sharks, as a species, who are in danger. And so here are the facts. There are typically only four incidents a year of sharks killing a human but 1,500 deaths in the US alone are caused by lightning during a thunderstorm.
Shark numbers have gone down 92% over the past half century. The remote regions around uninhabited islands have more sharks and other large fish living in the surrounding waters, and the coral reefs there are noticeably much healthier and more colourful. Sharks are an important part of the ocean ecosystem and their depletion would dangerously unbalance that, to our detriment. The oceans create oxygen, which we breathe, and are therefore of great importance to humans. The Pacific archipelago of Palau banned commercial fishing of sharks. Palau’s president, Johnson Toribiong, told the United Nations Assembly: “The strength and beauty of sharks is a natural barometer for the health of our oceans.”
It is interesting to note that sharks were here, more than 200 million years before dinosaurs, and their much longer evolution equipped them with a slender, elongated and flexible body, perfect for a life in the ocean. Their pectoral fins are not fused to the head. They breathe through the gill slits on the side of the body. There are 468 species of sharks. Their size varies from two feet to a fifty-foot length. Some sharks have noticeable multiple rows of teeth, and when they lose one, a new one grows in its place. Shark skin is structured from a series of scales that act as a flexible outer skeleton to aid easy movement. Their colouring is also designed for an effective camouflage – darker in upper parts but with a light underside. Some sharks feed on molluscs, plankton and krill, others on fish and marine mammals. Sharks’ acute sense of smell is legendary – they can detect blood in the water from miles away. Mostly, sharks live for 20-30 years, but whale sharks are believed to live over 100 years. They hunt mainly at night. Those sharks that feed on krill and plankton swim with their huge mouths wide open to filter large quantities of feed, a sight to behold for lucky divers.
Shark are ready to reproduce when they are 12 – 15 years old. The newly born pups are straight away ready to feed and live independently. The slow and inconsistent reproduction of sharks is due, so scientists believe, to the fact that they evolved over millions of years without any danger directed at them, that is until man arrived armed with hooks, spears and fishing nets. The renowned nature writer, Jennifer Weeks, wrote: “With better understanding of how sharks help keep the ocean in balance, we can learn to see them in much the same way we view lions or wolves or grizzly bears: magnificent predators that deserve our protection and respect.” Yes, full Respect.