Monday, February 17, 2014

Shark Wisdom

When I was 11, I saw JAWS. I had nightmares for years. Great White Sharks became a fascination, as great fears often do. I began to study them in my 20's and have followed them in research for the last 20 years. They are magnificent and I consider them one of my totem animals, guiding me in this lifetime in dreams and with their behavior.

After reading The Devil's Teeth, by Susan Casey, I was directed to the Shark Research Committee website through a friend. This website allows people to report encounters, sightings and evidence of presence and feeding behavior of sharks, specifically, Great White Sharks. I began to check the sight daily.

When my daughter entered 8th grade and faced the Science Fair, I suggested that we use the multitudes of data collected on Great White Shark/Human interaction from the SRC website. We created parameters of study;  how often did a reporter state that they "got out of the water" after seeing a Great White Shark and how often did they "stay in" (usually, that looked like: "and then we surfed for 2 more hours".) We figured that this measurement told much about the person's comfort in knowingly sharing the water with a Great White Shark.

We analyzed eleven years of data collected from 2003 to 2013. There were over 500 reports submitted of people knowingly sharing the water with Great White Sharks. We excluded all data that included contact of any kind, including attacks. We counted over 150 reports where people, mostly surfers, remained in the water after seeing a Great White Shark. About 30% of encounters ended this way.

We found that most of the encounters were with local juvenile great whites in San Onofre, Sunset Beach, Encinitas and Manhattan Beach, California, all known birthing spots for Great White Sharks due to their abundance of small fishes like grunion and other sandy bottom-dwelling fish and rays. New born Great White sharks need to start feeding right away to ensure survival.  The local babies tend to stay local for at least a year or two and seem to like looking at or swimming near surfers.

The Great White Shark is a highly intelligent, apex predator that has not changed much in the last 200 million years.  Their eyesight is similar to ours. They see as well above water as they do below. They have been documented "spy hopping" by raising their head out of the water or turning their body to "eyeball" a Stand up paddle boarder or surfer on many occasions.

In the 1990's it was absolutely unheard of to even consider swimming alongside a Great White Shark without a cage to protect the diver. Jean Michel Cousteau and Mose Richards published a beautiful book about the Great White Shark in 1993. During their studies, they created a plexiglass tube cage for a diver to get close to the sharks without the interference of a metal cage (which scientists were beginning to assume stimulates the sharks 6th sense, the ampullae of lorenzini).  The photos of great whites with the plexiglass cage show a gentle curiosity.  The shark "gently hugs" the long cylinder with the diver inside. It doesn't try to bite or mouth the diver. To my knowledge, this was the first book about Great White Sharks that approached them with curiosity and awe instead of fear.

These days, in 2014, we have images like this:

And this:

This beautiful creature, it is smart. It is curious. 

It swims with us. It has the ability to hurt us but doesn't most of the time. 

This is an animal that deserves respect and protection. It has MUCH to teach us about survival and adaptation. 

Mark my words, I will knowingly swim with a Great White Shark some day.  I will be SO lucky!!!!

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