Sharks are the apex predators of our marine environment – they are only ever threatened by other sharks and, rarely, by dolphins or killer whales. They instil fear in us, because we, like them, are animals, and so we naturally fear those more powerful than ourselves.
We humans have instincts which we suppress, and that society regards as taboo – think of the Victorian attitudes to sex, marriage and death, which were so different to our distant ancestral pagan beliefs and practices which embraced these aspects of everyday desires and emotions.
The shark brings us right back to something deeper within our soul, another emotion which we humans have suppressed over the generations – fear.
So in some ways it’s understandable that we dwell on reports of shark attacks, although they are infrequent, shudder but stare at pictures of large teeth and avidly read about supposedly huge, indiscriminate appetites.
The latest example of this is Celebrity Shark Bait, a reality TV show which is due to be broadcast on ITV next month. It’s timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the release of the film Jaws – which has probably done more than anything else to instil a sense of terror at sharks.
The show will see celebrities, including Richard E Grant and Ruby Wax, submerged in cages in the waters off South Africa known as Shark Alley. This “cage-diving” is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, including Britons, in both South Africa and Australia.
And as more people travel long-haul on exotic holidays, the opportunity for a close encounter with such an incredible creature will probably be taken up more and more frequently.
The conditions needed to attract great white sharks to tourists (or D-list celebrities) involves chumming the water (pouring a smelly soup of mashed fish blood and guts into it) and waiting on a boat for the sharks to arrive, prior to entering a cage, and looking out into the gloom for the arrival of the shark. But campaigners claim this “chumming” is conditioning sharks to come closer to beaches and human contact.
More contact, they say, inevitably means more attacks.
Humans are not sharks’ natural prey – most humans are attacked because sharks mistake them for fish.
So are we encouraging them to go against their natural instinct and attack humans?
South Africa’s Shark Concern Group, which campaigns for the outlawing of cage-diving and chumming, certainly thinks so. The group’s Chris Bovim has said of the ITV show: “It is not a good idea for humans to taunt a predator by throwing food and blood into the water. It is no surprise that human interaction is leading to more attacks.”
It is difficult to know if more sharks really are attacking humans. Fatal attacks stand at around ten a year – with numbers this small, it’s difficult to pick out trends without many years of data.
But certainly morally, this show only encourages exploitation of sharks – wild creatures which deserve respect.
“Chumming” manipulates their behaviour for our entertainment – if this was elephants in a zoo, there would be outrage.
And, perhaps the biggest tragedy, it reinforces the stereotype of sharks as mindless killers.
Humans will probably always be fascinated by sharks. They do deserve many of the superlatives which are used to describe them, including supreme killing machines – but they are not malicious human murderers.
So is there any way to combine this fascination with the increased opportunities, through the growth of long-haul holidays, for us to see sharks in the wild and use that to build a more accurate picture of these magnificent creatures?
Yes, there is, if tourists ignore some of the more manipulative cage-diving operators.
I have recently returned from a trip to the Maldives and dived with four shark species, one of which was twice my length but has no teeth to speak of (the whale shark).