Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sharks; Very Misunderstood Creatures

I believe that we, as humans, need to take the time to learn about sharks before forming and opinion about them. Most people have taken how they view sharks from movies and novels written about them. In these movies and books, the sharks are shown as vicious monsters, out to attack any human that comes into their home, the ocean.

You can see this in the following scene taken from the classic horror film, Jaws. A little boy grabs his yellow air mattress and heads for the water. He paddles out in the ocean a short distance. He is kicking and splashing around in the water, when a huge shark approaches him. Blood goes every where and the little boy disappears. Every one panics and runs from the water yelling "SHARK". The deflated air mattress floats to shore with a huge bite missing from it. Many people form opinions from a scene like this one about sharks.

I went with a friend, Cat, to a small aquarium off the coast of California. I had been fascinated with sharks from a very early age. This aquarium, Ocean World, offered tours and a chance to touch a live shark at the end. My friend had never seen the ocean, let alone touch a shark before, so we decided we could not let this opportunity slip by. We paid our admission fee and waited for the tour to begin.

As our tour got under way, we walked by a darkened room, where there sat a small holding tank . As I passed by the room, I looked in and saw a dorsal fin slice through the still water of the tank. My heart started to beat faster, as my palms began to sweat with excitement. I could see the fearful anticipation on Cat's face of what was to come. She was going to be able to actually touch a live shark!

We continued on the tour, but ended up in the room with the small tank when it was over. We all stood around the tank waiting for instructions from our guide. You could feel the concern and enthusiasm in the air, as we waited and watched the leopard shark swim around the perimeter of the tank. She was beautiful in color, black spots with a golden brown background. Some spots were longer in shape than others. Her eyes were small ovals and yet, you could clearly see them.

"Could I have every one's attention for a moment please?" our guide asked. We turned and listened. "It is very important that you follow a few simple rules so that you do not frighten the shark as you reach in to touch her." I could not believe my ears! He was actually telling us that the shark was scared of us! In all my years of being fascinated with sharks, I had never thought of the shark being afraid of us, as humans.

We had always been led to believe that sharks are out to get us, that one drop of blood in the water could send them into a feeding frenzy. Quint, the shark fisherman in Jaws says, "It is a bad fish, this shark. It will swallow you whole.... No tenderizing, down in one gulp you go."

And yet here was our tour guide saying just the opposite. He continued giving us instructions. "Put your hand in the water after the shark's head has passed, so you do not frighten her."
There he said it again. Had we been wrong to just take what the movies, books and media had said about shark's as truth instead of taking time to learn about them and form our own opinions?

As the shark passed by me, I reached in to touch her. I was so amazed at the feel of her. It was like touching a moss-covered rock in a stream or pond, slimy. She also felt very thick, like a finely tuned muscle in a gymnast, powerful and yet graceful at the same time. At that moment, what had started as a fascination for sharks, for me became a true love and passion!

As I waited for the shark to swim back to me, I watched as the other people put their hands in the water. They hadn't paid attention to what our guide had said. They were putting their hands in the water in front of shark's head and pulling on her tail.

She became very frightened and agitated. The shark started swimming tight circles in the middle of the tank, away from every one. You could see the fear in her small eyes; she was scared of the hands. I tried to imagine what she was feeling; all of these fingers coming at her at once, no matter which way she swam.

Her reaction was not that of a bloodthirsty monster our out to eat humans. It was like that of a young child, lost and looking for help from someone. I became very concerned for the shark and felt a very strong need to shield her from all the people.

"How do you keep the shark's fear and her reaction to it from doing any physical harm to her?" I could not believe that question came out of my mouth. I don't think Cat did either from the look on her face. I have always been very shy and not one to speak out in a group of strangers, and yet here i was asking this question.

"We rotate the shark we have in the tank every 3 days with a different one." Our guide replied. Cat leaned over and whispered to me, "You didn't need to attack the guy when you asked the question."

I hadn't meant for it to come out that way. I had felt this overwhelming need to protect the shark. I learned something very important that day from the leopard shark. She had taught me that her species are not the cold-blooded killers out for human flesh, but are instead, unique creatures that need our help and understanding. I learned this lesson, because I took the time and opportunity to learn about them; instead of just accepting what I read or see about them as fact,

Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws said "With all the knowledge accumulated about the great white in the pas 25 years, I couldn't possibly write Jaws today.... Not in good conscience anyway." He also started to campaign for the conservation of sharks before he died.

If the man who wrote the novel that added to myth that shark's are mindless, monsters, can take the time to learn and change his preconceived ideas about sharks, then we all can. It is up to every one of us to take the time to learn about sharks. They depend on us. Are you willing to put forth the effort to learn?

Remember.........Extinction is forever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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