Sharks in the media typically come with an exclamation. Watch out! There’s one right there. The implication, usually reinforced in the text, is that these are animals to fear. But the hard facts paint a completely different picture, one that reveals sharks as wonders of evolution that have outlasted the dinosaurs but are now facing a genuine threat due to man’s interference.
Today is Shark Awareness Day and it’s an important attempt to redress popular misconceptions and raise awareness about these incredible creatures.
Peter Benchley, the writer of Jaws, after the massive success of the famous Shark attack movie of the same name, regretted reinforcing a negative view of sharks in popular culture. To this day for many people when they think sharks, they still think a big row of razor-sharp teeth lunging out of the water and not much more thanks to that movie. It solidified sharks as the definition of danger in the water and this perception has worked against their protection. But these are animals vital to a healthy marine environment and are deserving of far better.
Irish waters are home to around 71 cartilaginous fish species (skeleton made of cartilage) encompassing a broad range of sharks, skates, rays and rabbitfish. The biggest and most impressive is the basking shark, the second largest shark in the world.
Many species of shark are at the top of the food chain where they help keep other populations in check. This is an important role in the marine environment which has consequences for a multitude of other species not directly preyed upon. But there’s a dark cloud hanging over sharks and their populations are being seriously depleted.
Human impact is pushing some of these species to the brink of extinction. Overexploitation of fisheries, habitat destruction and bycatch are proving too much for these creatures to overcome. A recent assessment on shark life in our seas found that six shark species in Irish water were ‘Critically Endangered’ which is last stop before extinction in the wild. These include portuguese dogfish, common skate, flapper skate, porbeagle shark, white skate and angel shark.
The more you get to know about sharks, the less you fear and the more you will care. And more than that – The more you know, the more you can appreciate.
Two University College Dublin divers recently experienced an incredible underwater encounter with Basking sharks. They were exploring the marine life-rich waters around the Stags of Broadhaven, a group of jagged rocky islands at Broadhaven Bay, Erris, Co. Mayo. They were in the water at a depth of 20 metres finishing up their dive when one of them spotted in the distance the unmistakable silhouette of a shark.
But they didn’t panic, they didn’t flee. Crucial to this encounter was their understanding and knowledge of sharks. They knew what they were looking at. These massive creatures were not something to fear but a marvel to appreciate.
As can be seen from the reaction in the video – A fairly unmistakable exclamation of excitement! – the diver realized what a privilege it was to be visited by a Basking Shark, the largest shark in Irish waters.
On Shark awareness day, this video beautifully illustrates what a deeper understanding of sharks can mean. We can only hope that one day this is the popular perception of sharks and all exclamations are of wonder and excitement.