Shark Attack

shark tail

I should have known better than to have swum at dusk.

hilton-island-727110_1920I should have known better than to have swum in a deep channel between two islands off the coast of Florida, the shark attack capital of the world[1].

I should have known better than to have swum twenty minutes after the tide turned, flushing the little fish out to sea. Because where there are little fish, there are predators. Big predators.

file4701246219194I was nineteen at the time. Adventurous, optimistic…and old enough to remember freezing with fear when I saw the movie, Jaws.

If you’ve ever swum late in the day, you’ll know how dark the water looks when you look down. Then you wonder what you can’t see…what’s looking up at you.

I was treading water mid-channel, and the surface was flat like polished ebony, sliding away to the gnarled mangrove roots fifty yards distant that bordered the beach I was aiming for.

And then everything around me turned grey.

shark-670021_1920A great sweeping flank of grey, topped by a slicing dorsal fin broke the surface. Eight feet behind that fin, a scimitar tail beat as three-quarters of a ton of hungry muscle, sixteen feet of apex-predator circled me…

file0002076921195A fact or two about sharks had sunk in when sipping Margaritas with the scuba team in Fingerless Joe’s Hurricane Shack. Even as a primordial trigger tripped an alarm in my unconscious, I knew there was only one shark in these waters that reached that size…manoeuvred with such athleticism. The Great Hammerhead.sharks-266014_1920

Another fact I knew, was not to panic. Not to try and swim for it because my distress would only excite the shark. What else did I know?

rays-525236_1920Well, that this shark usually fed on stingrays buried in the sand[2]. Sharks contain sensory pits on their snouts called the Ampullae of Lorenzini[3] – that detect the electrical discharges given off by muscles. So burying itself doesn’t protect a stingray. A shark can tell if you’re a prey item, just by swimming past. fish-plaice-1510303-1278x782

The question on my mind was would this shark confuse my flat feet for flat fish?

Between 1958 and 2014, there were 548[4] recorded shark attach fatalities worldwide. That’s an average of ten per year. Was I about to be number 11?

hippo-783522_1920But consider this – in Africa, hippos, Cape Buffalo, and lions all kill hundreds of people a year. Elephants kill around 2,000 annually. Worldwide, crocodiles kill over 5,000 people every year. Then there’s the North African death stalker scorpion, responsible for 50,000 deaths a year[5]. And I haven’t mentioned my cooking…

earth-ii-1475811-1279x913But one statistic worth considering is that if you laid those ten unfortunate shark attack victims end to end, they’d stretch across a room.

shark-674867_1920If you laid all the sharks killed by humans each year end to end, they’d stretch…four times around the planet. Ten versus…one hundred million[6].

And this has been going on for decades, such that scientists now estimate 90% of the large fish, including sharks, are gone[7].

ramen-1167506_1920Why are so many killed? Three words. Three very sad words: shark…fin…soup. A gelatinous delicacy popular in SE Asia, especially at times of celebrations such as marriages.

Now you may think a shark-free ocean would be a good thing – and I confess that as this giant hammerhead circled me, that thought crossed my mind! But let me explain a theory that suggests it wouldn’t.

whale-shark-281498_1920Sharks eat the middle-sized and smaller fish that dine on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton – or plant plankton as opposed to animal plankton. They photosynthesize half to seventy percent of the planet’s CO2, turning it into oxygen – yes, that’s as much or more than all the land-based plants combined. The theory goes that if we remove the sharks, the herbivorous fish population will explode…and most of the phytoplankton will disappear.

No more CO2 capture, no more oxygen production. Hello irreversible global warming[8].

file000783834896So next time you’re dining in the Peking Palace in Pekham, or in Chomping Chopsticks in Chiswick and your eyes scroll down the menu to shark fin soup, please keep going. I’ve heard the black sesame soup is rather tasty.

Oh, and that great hammerhead? There was one more fact I forgot to mention: no fatal attack on a human has ever been attributed to a hammerhead shark[9]. And I knew that…as I watched this magnificent creature, whose ancestors and relatives have populated the oceans for 450 million years[10].

Then it circled once more and headed out to sea.

In search, no doubt, of sweet and sour stingray.


hammerhead Ben art

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