Foghorn (A Call to Action!)
Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)
Bends in the foreleg of a goat after experiments performed by physiologist John S. Haldane, published in the Journal of Hygiene Vol. 8, 1908.
Photo courtesy Discovery.
Welcome to Volume #5 of Dear Shark Man, an advice column inspired by a ridiculous e-mail I received. You can send your questions to me via twitter (@WhySharksMatter) or e-mail (WhySharksMatter at gmail).
Dear Shark Man,
What’s the history of the shark’s cultural image as a sneaky aggressive predator? Do other cultures see it differently?
Imaginative in Irvine
Much of the large-scale public fear of sharks we see today can be traced to the movie “Jaws” (read my Gizmodo article about this here). Shark conservation biologists actually use the term “the Jaws effect” in peer reviewed scientific literature. Terror of sharks resulting from that movie is fairly common even among people you wouldn’t expect; for example, both of my parents are outdoorsy and have post-graduate degrees, and yet both reported being afraid to go swimming in pools or lakes the summer after Jaws came out. Personally, I don’t think that modern shark b-movies like “SharkNado” or “Two-Headed Shark Attack” inspire the same level of public misunderstanding because they’re obviously silly, but others disagree.
Media coverage of shark bites also plays a major role. If someone gets bitten by a shark anywhere in the world, it’s headline news everywhere even if the bite isn’t severe enough to require more than a band-aid. In Australia, 38% of reported “shark attacks” didn’t even involve any injury at all. This is part of why I, along with many other shark scientists, have called on the popular press to avoid the inflammatory and inaccurate term “shark attack” in favor of a typology of other terms (shark sighting, shark encounter, shark bite, fatal shark bite).
Other cultures absolutely see sharks differently. Where I now live in western Canada, coastal First Nations have stories about a supernatural being called the Dogfish Woman. In some South Pacific cultures, sharks are seen as spirits of ancestors called aumakua (briefly referenced in Moana, see below), and there are even shark gods like Dakuwaqa.
Maui in the form of a shark, from Moana. You’re welcome.
Mareike Dornhege is currently finishing up her PhD on shark fisheries in Japan. She is based in Tokyo at Sophia University and after seeing no sharks many times were there should be sharks on reefs all around the world she wanted to dig deeper and find out when we lost them, why and where. She is trying to reconstruct baselines by looking at the history of sharks and humans, talking to old fishermen and of course modern data as well. And she really loves going on that shark-feeding dive about 90 minutes south of Tokyo!
The latest shark thriller The Shallows just hit theaters—coincidentally with Shark Week around the corner – and is latest in a long line of shark thrillers. In the grand, yet predictable fashion of movies like Deep Blue Sea, The Reef or Open Water, it fuels our fear of the sleek ocean predators that was first awakened by the mother of all shark movies, Jaws, in 1975. Or, was it? It is only since the Jaws theme that got stuck in our heads, even if we are just paddling around in a swimming pool at dusk, and images of dangling legs under water, that we got so irrationally scared and obsessed with the well-designed teeth of these fish after all, right?
Actually no. During my research on the history of shark and men I came across some hair-raising anecdotes of monster sharks from the Caribbean and man-hunting mantas that are just a bit older. A few centuries that is. This fishermen’s yarn must be the pre-digital equivalent of this youtube video of a megalodon shark caught on tape, real mermaids, and dragon footage. Let’s look at what they say and then at what the real science behind these stories is.
David Ebert has been researching sharks and their relatives (the rays, skates, and ghost sharks) around the world for more than three decades focusing his research on the biology, ecology and systematics of this enigmatic fish group. His current research efforts are focused on finding, documenting, and bring awareness to the world’s “lost sharks”. If you would like to learn more please see our crowd funding project “Looking for Lost Sharks: An Exploration of Discovery through the Western Indian Ocean” and consider making a donation. The more we raise, the more sharks we can name and the more schools we will be able to reach.
Jaws, the mere mention of the movie conjures up images of a large triangular fin cutting through the water, beneath it a large fearsome-looking toothy shark swimming with a sense of authority, a purpose. One of the movie’s trailers at the time hyped the fact that this was a mindless eating machine!
I recall seeing the movie Jaws in the theater for the first time during my high school days in the summer of 1975. It was the first big summer blockbuster film, it was something new to audiences, and certainly new to me. Prior to the film’s release people generally did not anticipate such great summertime entertainment from movies like Jaws and subsequently Star Wars (released in 1977). These were fun movies to see with your friends and spend an afternoon or evening afterwards talking about certain scenes or dialog from the movie, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”; remember this was back in the pre-iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, social media era when kids actually spent time together talking with each other, without the aid of electronic devices and no texting!
The movie as an ancillary and an unintended consequence brought a lot of attention to sharks, both good and not so good. Shark attacks that were of minimal media attention became big news stories, catching big sharks became a sport and shark diving became popular; all of this after the movie’s release. A few high profile shark attacks, one in particular in Monterey that made international news, only further fueled the public’s fascination and fear of sharks. Just going into the water suddenly became an adventure, with the prospects (however unlikely) that one may see a shark. It certainly put the public’s awareness of sharks in their conscience.
Dr. Christopher Neff is a Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government at the University of Sydney. He completed the first PhD on the “Politics of Shark Attacks” and has been published in Marine Policy, Coastal Management and the Journal of Homosexuality.
Jaws is a great horror movie. Personally, it’s one of my favorites. Politically, it kills me. While it has certainly inspired generations of marine biologists, researchers and social scientists (like me) since its release in 1975, it has also served as the most powerful vehicle to advance public fear of sharks in modern history. These two different implications become problematic because while sharks make for great movies, movies make for lousy public policy. When tragic shark bite incidents occur, there is a classic Jaws-esque analogy just waiting to be made. And sometimes the media circus turns into policy.
I recently wrote an article called “The Jaws Effect” for the Australian Journal of Political Science comparing policymaking in Western Australia and the movie Jaws. While, we see some of these comparisons in real-time the reason it is important to study this formally is because these moments can tell us about the tensions between politicians and scientists that lead to myth-based policies.