Are You Afraid of Sharks? Don't Be

08/09/2017 05:12 pm ET

Instead, celebrate them as magnificent predators crucial to the health of oceans—before it's too late

By Kristin Hettermann

<em>Blacktip shark (carcharhinus melanopterus).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Blacktip shark (carcharhinus melanopterus).

There are moments in life that take your breath away. Not the best idea when scuba diving, however hard to avoid when the moments involve looking into the eyes of sharks. I had one such moment lined up in the current alongside a dozen gray reef sharks on the ocean floor of the south pass in Fakarava, deep in the islands of French Polynesia. This moment, as we all basked in the flow together, changed not just the way I felt about sharks but extinguished a level of fear that I had regarding the ocean. Me, a child of the 80s, raised knowing only the sharks in the movie Jaws, was flabbergasted that these sharks were not tearing me to pieces.

But Jaws was not a documentary. Has a forty-year-old fictional movie shaped your perception of sharks and your experience in the ocean? What is it about these creatures that evokes such a feeling of imminent disaster, as if death is lurking around the corner with a bare mention of this species of the deep dark blue? Clearly, it’s a stunning case of an unexpected PR campaign gone bad for this magnificent but maligned creature who holds a top tier in the ocean’s mighty food chain. Sharks are the most misunderstood animals in the ocean, possibly on our planet.

<em>Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus). </em>
Kristin Hettermann
Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).

My attitude about sharks conformed to popular opinion before I started scuba diving: “They. Will. Eat. Me.” Swimming, kite surfing, and exploring shallow reefs always had a twinge of danger lurking just below the surface of my consciousness—would I be shark-bait today? When I started diving, I realized that scuba divers were obsessed with seeing sharks. People actually traveled the world hoping that the next dive would answer their prayers: they would see a shark. I was intrigued.

How could one animal that populates almost every ocean on earth engender such disparate reactions? At one end of the reaction spectrum you have people who are so afraid of a possible encounter with a shark that they will not dip a toe in the ocean. At the other, there are shark enthusiasts who will go to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of these apex predators of the sea.

<em>Grey reef sharks (carcharhinus amblyrhynchos).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Grey reef sharks (carcharhinus amblyrhynchos).

We learn by observation, so I slowly began to fall in line behind the scuba divers--inching closer and closer to observe sharks in their natural environment. Armed with a slew of eye-opening facts that I fervently hoped were true, I attempted to put aside my fearful preconceptions. I took solace in hearing things like: you have a greater chance of being killed by bee stings, falling coconuts, or struck dead by lightning than being killed by a shark.

Now running on reason rather than fear, I went in search of sharks and soon enough, found myself surrounded by hundreds of them, in one of the world’s most celebrated shark sanctuaries: the south pass of Fakarava Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia. Fakarava, the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has a narrow pass on the south side that is only 200 meters wide and said to hold up to 750 resident sharks and the largest density of spawning grouper on the planet. The narrow pass creates a unique marine environment with the transition between pelagic (open sea) and lagoonal life as outgoing tides deliver a mass of food—from plankton to fish of many sizes—to more than satisfy the sharks and their prey.

<em>Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).

Every year, around the full moon in July, approximately 17,000 grouper gather to partake in a great spectacle of nature, mass spawning. Grouper are very appetizing to the resident sharks, who gather in large numbers at this location during this time. This massive shark “lab” provides a great opportunity for scientists and enthusiasts to observe and study. In addition to being protected as a designated shark sanctuary in French Polynesia—one of the largest in the world—the south pass of the Fakarava atoll is fished by less than a dozen people, which means the spawning aggregation has remained healthy. Healthy fish stocks, healthy predators.

Sharks have been playing the role of top predator in our seas for over 450 million years, and play a vital role in maintaining balanced and healthy ocean systems. To put it in perspective, they arrived 200 million years before dinosaurs showed up. Through all five mass extinction events, sharks have survived. The world’s oceans have held over 400 different species of shark, ranging in size from the tiny six-inch dwarf lantern shark to the massive 40-foot whale shark. The largest known species of shark, C. megalodon, suddenly died out 1.6 million years ago, but fossil records indicate they might have reached a maximum length of 67 feet. Today, nearly one in four species of sharks and their relatives are threatened with extinction.

<em>Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).

Prominent scientists and marine biologists look to the existence of sharks—apex predators that sit at the top of the food chain—as a sign of the health of a marine ecosystem, proof of sustainable biomass. An Oceana report speaks to the need for more predators, which leads to greater diversity within an ecosystem: “Apex predators, including many shark species, are a necessary component to maintaining a complex ecosystem full of diversity and life. In addition to regulating species abundance, distribution and diversity, top predators provide essential food sources for scavengers and remove the sick and weak individuals from prey populations.”

But we have a real problem. As much as people fear that stepping into the ocean will get them face-to-face with a shark, the reality is that during this century our sharks have rapidly disappeared. Where have they all gone? Fished out of the sea. Why? Shark fins, one of the most valuable seafood items on the planet. In a booming Asian economy, a spoonful of shark fin soup (which can cost up to $100 a bowl) is an overt demonstration of prestige, the primary cause of international demand for shark fins. With shark carcasses being bulky and worth less money, the practice of “shark finning” (removing fins and throwing bleeding carcasses overboard) has become common, using only between one percent and five percent of the shark.

<em>Lemon shark (Negaprion Acutidens).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Lemon shark (Negaprion Acutidens).

According to reports, every year humans kill more than 100 million sharks worldwide, with a majority of them targeted for their fins which end up in the global fin trade. Annually, sharks kill between five and 15 people. Who is the most dangerous predator? We are.

Nicolas Buray moved to Moorea from France in 1998 and started working as a dive instructor. While working at the dive center, he studied at CRIOBE, which is a marine biology-focused field station located on Moorea for the French-based Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etude (EPHE). He remembers the day that the fax came into his dive center. A Chinese dealer of shark fins living in French Polynesia sent a blanket outreach to businesses and professionals related to the sea with an offer that was too good to pass up for many Polynesians: a new source of income through obtaining shark fins. It was early in the 2000s, and some locals saw this as a chance to get steady and reliable income from a source that was guaranteeing that their bounty would be highly regarded and compensated.

<em>Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).

But in the Pacific Islands, sharks have long held ecological, economic, and cultural significance, representing an important ʻaumakua in mythology—a god or deified ancestor. The appearance of an ʻaumakua is often believed to be an omen of good will, and it is considered extremely bad luck to harm one. In 2004, fishermen from Rangiroa were cutting lemon shark fins in front of several people. When people tried to intervene, the fishermen got aggressive and the scene was caught on film. Seeing the realities of what was happening, shock turned to action and dive centers around French Polynesia created a petition to stop the shark mutilation which received 60,000 signatures.

Due to this petition and in an effort to combat the effects of finning, in April of 2006 the French Polynesian government declared a shark fishing and finning moratorium, forbidding the killing of sharks within the 5 million square kilometers of the Polynesian EEZ (exclusive economic zone). At the time, the edible mako shark was excluded in this ban to appease local fishing interests. In December of 2012, the mako shark was included under the protection and French Polynesia, a group of five major archipelagos with more than 100 islands, became one of the largest shark sanctuaries in the world.

<em>Grey reef sharks (carcharhinus amblyrhynchos).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Grey reef sharks (carcharhinus amblyrhynchos).

As of today, all species of sharks—including lemon, tiger, reef, black tip, white tip, mako, hammerhead and thresher sharks—are under protection from fishing, finning, and the import and export of all or parts of these valuable species. The idea that a shark is worth more alive than dead is being respected, and an increase in tourism related efforts surrounding marine conservation and shark observation are putting French Polynesia on the global ocean conservation map. Studies in nearby Palau regarding their protected sharks and tourism numbers show that the tourism appeal alone can make some sharks 17,000 times more valuable alive than dead.

Over 5,000 dives later, Nicolas Buray is still on Moorea studying the resident sharks. When I went diving with him this past July, he took me to Opunohu, the “shark feeding” site that he focused on when he completed his six-year behavioral research study of the lemon shark population (Negaprion acutidens) in 2010. In 2011, he founded the non-profit organization “Observatory of Polynesian Sharks,’ which includes hundreds of shark enthusiasts and observers who continue to observe and document shark behavior in Moorea and around French Polynesia. In his opinion, “The biggest challenge we have today is that pelagic sharks are endangered because their migration cannot be controlled and they are thus delivered to industrial fisheries in international waters. The end of the pelagic sharks equals the end of the equilibrium of the ocean.”

<em>Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).</em>
Kristin Hettermann
Blacktip sharks (carcharhinus melanopterus).

From the south pass of Fakarava to the lagoons of Moorea, and throughout French Polynesia, I submerged time and time again. Surrounded by sharks, time and time again. I marveled about how rudimentary they were, yet so innately complicated and intelligent. I slowly inched closer and closer. I asked everyone I interacted with in Polynesia if they had ever seen a shark act aggressively to a human. Interviewing many people with lifetimes of experiences interacting with sharks, I only heard of aggression when humans were involved with “baiting” sharks (enticing them with food).

As we sat on the ocean floor off the coast of Moorea, ten-foot lemon sharks circled us and acknowledged our presence now and then with a closer pass, but in general remained uninterested and went about their day. It was shocking to me that my fear of these magnificent creatures had kept me from truly experiencing the ocean in all its glory for so many years. Hanging out in the shark line up in the south pass of Fakarava, I looked left, right- into the eyes of sharks. It almost felt like they were smiling at me. That's when I realized sharks are really more friend than foe.

Returning home from my recent trip, a friend who had witnessed my relationship with the sharks through the images that I shared on social media sent me a link, with a note, “I thought of you when I saw this.” It was a video of respected animal communicator Anna Breytenbach, profiling her intuitive communication with the great white shark. She explains how sharks, as top apex predators, are losing their normal source of food. Overfishing is rapidly depleting, and in certain cases, extinguishing global fish stocks.

Great white sharks are coming to inshore waters—hungry and moving away from the danger of long lines and other fishing mechanisms. Sharks test things by mouthing them—if it happens to be a human, the panic, fear, and survival reactions amplify hectic electromagnetic waves that a shark can feel. Sharks have developed three more senses than humans over time, including sensing electrical pulses and perceiving both vibrations and pressure changes in the water. When a shark responds to the hectic waves, it will then often behave like a predator. This is the most likely time for a shark attack.

From my time spent documenting and researching sharks in the field, I feel the oceans are really suffering from this widespread, pervasive fear of sharks. If more people could extinguish this fear and see sharks from a more realistic perspective, they would open a door to the endless natural riches the ocean offers. Are you interested in this? Take some of Anna’s advice the next time you approach the water, surely a piece of advice that Nicolas Buray would also support after thousands of hours in the water with sharks. Anna says, “Sharks do not want to attack us. We are not a shark’s natural food, in fact, they don’t like the taste of us. When you enter the water, adjust your mental state to a state of calmness. Put a bubble around yourself—a radius of peaceful energy, with an absence of anything that can harm you. Maintain an innocence and appreciation for the sharks and you will be amazed at what you learn.”

Away with the fear. And let’s start getting to know the ocean, from the inside out. Shark love begins today.

Explore these sites for yourself in 2018 on a Lindblad-National Geographic expedition. Discover the isle of Moorea on Isles, Atolls, and Pristine Corals: Southern Line Islands expedition, and explore Fakarava on Easter Island to Tahiti: Tales of the Pacific.

About the Author

Kristin Hettermann

Kristin Hettermann is an adventurer, writer, and photographer who strives to share positive stories, document the earth and its cultures, inspire people to explore, and raise awareness for important causes — particularly the protection and restoration of the world's oceans. Follow Kristin on Twitter and Instagram @gracedelivers and visit Grace Delivers.

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