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Jaws of life

Sharks are, for many people, one of the most terrifying creatures on the planet. But all evidence points to the fact that we do way more damage to them than they do to us. In a peace-making gesture, Idealog editor Hazel Phillips descends into the deep blue to make amends.

Swimming around amid the sharks, I was doing my best not to appear too tasty, though I assumed if one of them decided to nab one of us for a mid-morning snack, my friend David was much more likely to be selected. I’m vegetarian and I’ve got a theory that animals somehow know when you’re not in the habit of eating their relatives – and David was definitely looking more and more like morning tea as the day went on.

Sharks. Roll that word around in your mouth and you’ll inevitably start hearing the Jaws theme music in your head. The goosebumps start pricking, and you might feel inclined to double-check the bathtub next time you get in. But are sharks really the sensational danger they’re made out to be? Are they merely spine-tingling fodder for the front page of the NZ Herald? Is it possible that we do way more harm to them each year than they ever inflict upon us?

It’s in the name of answering these questions and more that I hop down to Auckland aquarium Kelly Tarlton’s for a scuba dive in the shark tank – though it could be argued that taking a friend along with you as a sacrificial lamb makes for a less-than-objective experiment. Nevertheless, after signing a medical declaration and a “statement of understanding and assumption of risk agreement” (and confirming we will exit the tank quickly and unaided should the occasion demand it), David and I are both willing to take one for the team.

After a pre-dive briefing, our dive master Lance takes us for a walk through the shark tunnel (remember the travelator and curved glass?) and on a journey through the world of these magnificent predators. First up, Lance warns us that they are bigger in real life – the curved glass makes them appear smaller when you’re on the dry side inside the tunnel. There are a total of 23 sharks at Kelly Tarlton’s. Some are a couple of metres long (they grow to a maximum length of 3.1m) and weigh more than you’d really want to contemplate. A few are deceptively cute – the school sharks have happy little smiley mouths – while others look far more intimidating. The sand tiger sharks (aka grey nurse sharks) have mouthfuls of ragged, protruding teeth, which are actually used for holding onto slippery fish, rather than chewing limbs off humans.

They’re also very smart.

Sharks are denser than water and tend to sink if they stop swimming, but sand tiger sharks are the only species that swim to the surface and swallow air in order to regulate buoyancy.

Hazel (left) thinks David (right) looks tastier than her

Have they been fed this morning, I wonder? Surely they’re stuffed senseless with tasty fishy treats about five minutes before the divers get into the tank, so that they’re too full to contemplate taking a bite? Not so, we learn. Lance tells us the sharks are only fed twice a week, and they’re “target-fed” – a couple of divers dish out the goods and they tick off each shark after they’ve dined. Om nom nom.

There’s a peek behind the scenes at some new arrivals (such as a giant crab fished up in a lobster pot somewhere down south), and then before we have a chance to chicken out, we’re gearing up and preparing for takeoff.

You’re not allowed to touch the sharks (should you feel so inclined) and Lance warns us that they’re actually fairly shy. Still, he arms himself with a bright orange stick, which isn’t for poking naughty sharks but rather for warding them off if they get too close to a nervous diver.

Usually when diving, you want to achieve neutral buoyancy – where you’re neither bobbing up to the surface nor sinking to the bottom – but because we want to avoid getting in the way of the sharks as they cruise the tank, we’re overweighted and sit on the sandy bottom as they silently glide over our heads.

Hazel slinking along the floor

And shy they are. For the first five minutes, they won’t come anywhere near us, but eventually we’re as old news as tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping, and they risk coming a little closer. Still, if you make eye contact they tend to shy away, so the best way to see them is to pretend to ignore them and then turn around and look back. Creepy as it sounds, I discover they’re often hanging around just behind me, only to veer off once they see me watching them.

The reaction of the public in the tunnel is almost as interesting as the sharks themselves, particularly when we come across a full jar of Marmite in the tank and offer it to them. They clearly think we’re lunatics preparing for a trip to the nut-hatch. Perhaps we are. After 20 minutes it’s time to head to the surface, and giving way to sharks (no kidding – they have right of way) we ascend back up. Dried off, we’re all alive and all limbs are intact, but with a healthier dose of respect for these grand predators than ever before. And maybe just a little bit of love, too.

Grey matters

But not everyone has much love for sharks. Ask most people if they’d fancy getting into a tank with one and you might get one “hell yes” out of 100 “are you mad?” responses. You might say these dudes suffer from a severe case of bad PR.

Occasional (but widely reported) attacks and a certain dodgy 70s movie trilogy has doomed sharks to the widely held misconception that they’re vicious man-eaters. In fact, while almost all sharks are predators, only ten out of all the shark species are considered dangerous for humans. The International Shark Attack File (yes, this is for real) has documented 2,251 attacks on humans since 1580. Of those, only 13 were fatal attacks in New Zealand. Put that up against 100 million sharks a year killed by humans and you have an equation that not only tips the scale in our favour, it slams it. The UN estimates some species have been depleted by up to 90 percent by human hands.

But because sharks are “apex predators” – they’re at the top of the food chain – they have a big part to play in the health of the ocean and the workings of the food chain. They can live to an old age (some species are thought to live for more than 100 years) but don’t mature until late and don’t have many young, which means they can be vulnerable.

Sharks swimming overhead

Monsters of the deep 

Shark fin is the crucial ingredient in shark fin soup – which is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, particularly in Asia. Actual shark fin is tasteless, so the fin is boiled in a chicken or pork stock to add flavour. It’s also expensive – up to US$700 a kilogram.

The atrocious practice of shark finning is not only needlessly cruel, but unbelievably wasteful. The fin is cut off and the shark is released back into the ocean, but its chances of living are slim. Some estimates on shark finning put the deaths at 100 million or more each year.

Less obviously heinous, but threats nonetheless, are stray nets and commercial fishing gear. According to the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) there are few fisheries that don’t catch sharks as bycatch, and some fisheries catch more sharks than the species they are targeting. Tens of millions of sharks caught as bycatch each year (as well as those caught for Friday’s fish and chips) contribute to an alarming decline in shark numbers the world over. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, roughly one-third of all shark species worldwide currently face some threat of extinction.

Great white sharks, typically known as one of the deadliest creatures on earth, are now rarer than tigers, with fewer than 3,500 left. They look nasty but in fact when they attack humans it’s usually by accident. (Wetsuits and dive tanks don’t taste particularly nice, but seals do – which is what they usually think humans are when they’re in the water. The reality is that humans are way too bony for their tastes. Pah.) Great whites remain a target for poachers, who sell the teeth, jaws and fins. Wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC believes the price of shark meat in Taiwan has reached $7,000 per 2,000kg.

The whale shark is another one who gets a bum deal. It’s the largest living fish on the planet (it grows to 20m and weighs up to 24 tonnes) and while its numbers aren’t known, it’s considered endangered. And given it snacks on plankton and algae by skimming the water’s surface for food, any oil spills affect it terribly. The zebra shark also has it rough; popular for its meat, fins and liver oil, this wacky-looking creature is a bottom-feeder on reefs, so the depletion of reef habitats all over the world has been doubly bad news.

Sharks swimming overhead

Take action

So what can you do? It’s not like the sharks live in your backyard, right? Well, they almost do. New Zealand is one of the playgrounds of the great white shark, which is protected within our Territorial Sea and Exclusive Economic Zone. Fisheries impacts on sharks are managed under the National Plan of Action – Sharks. But while the great white cruises alone, his 111 other species buddies aren’t afforded that same protection. Basking sharks and bronze whalers get immunity from commercial fishing but not recreational fishing. A further handful of species are managed under the quota management system.

Brace yourself: shark finning, while banned in countries such as Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and the US, is still legal in our waters. That’s on dead sharks – it’s illegal to fin sharks while they’re alive, but recent reports and videos indicate that the practice has been illegally carried out in New Zealand waters regardless.

Forest & Bird is on the case, as are the Greens, who have compiled a list of restaurants that sell shark fin soup. (Please, for the love of Jaws, don’t eat it, serve it, or even patronise a restaurant that sells it). Check out Shark Fin Free Auckland, which also keeps a list of offending restaurants.

What else? Try giving the politicians a piece of your mind. Email Kate Wilkinson, Minister of Conservation (kate.wilkinson@parliament.govt.nz) and ask for a ban on shark finning and better protection for other species in our waters. If you’re into fishing, follow the code of practice and don’t leave nets set unattended or overnight. Don’t discard plastics (reducing your plastic usage overall is ideal) or other rubbish at sea – large filter-feeding sharks can accidentally eat them. Tell your mates. Tell your local MP. Pat a shark. (No, I’m kidding about that last one). But let’s abandon the scare-mongering Jaws image of sharks that we all carry around with us, and start seeing these guys as in need of our help. Because they are.

This article first appeared in Good magazine. To subscribe, click here.