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Tuesday, August 12, 2014


I finally watched Jaws for the first time this summer. When I was a child, my mother told me that her brother has not swam in the ocean since first seeing the movie some 30 years ago. As an ocean loving beach bum of a child, I knew that I never wanted to feel frightened of the ocean, so I chose not to watch Jaws while growing up. As an adult, I recognized that the movie fueled much of the terror and hate expressed towards sharks, and chose not to watch the film out of principle. As I was preparing to spend my summer diving with sharks and teaching a group of college students about shark behavior and conservation, I decided it was finally time to see this legendary movie. The conclusion? I really enjoyed the film. I thought it was impressively well made for a film of its age. I enjoyed the parody of the summer town that puts tourism money above people's lives, as I can easily relate this mentality to the Hamptons of New York. I also enjoyed the marine biologist from "the institute" as he embodied so many marine biology stereotypes and it is good to be able to laugh at yourself. In the real world, it seems that it is obvious that a shark will not maliciously target a boat as it did in the movie and the film did not leave me too scared to swim. In the end, I enjoyed the cinematic experience and was left wondering how this film spurred decades of "monster" hunting and relentless shark killing.

I think that people's response to the movie had more to do with marketing than with the actual movie. The film gave fishermen and tour operators excellent material to drum up fears and encourage people to spend their money on tournaments and hunting expeditions. It also provided fodder to fuel natural fears and instill a hatred in humans that would prevent them from speaking out and putting a stop to the barbaric killing. Essentially, I do not blame Jaws for the mindless slaughter of 100's of millions of sharks. I blame people: the people that have done the killing and the people who have encouraged it or have just turned the other way. I think Jaws is an easy target to help us understand why people have been so shortsighted and cruel in their treatment of sharks, but really it is just human nature, and ignorance, to be blamed.

So now it is time for another round of Shark Week. The time of year where millions of Americans cozy up on their couches, with the air conditioning blasting, and chug a beer every time someones says "air jaws." Meanwhile, 5,709 sharks are murdered during each 30 minute segment ( Every year I try to watch a couple episodes of Shark Week and each time I am disappointed and disgusted. I appreciate that they now include token conservation episodes and will mention conservation statistics, but the overarching mood of the week is fear for fun, with the fitting verbiage and spine tingling suspense music. While sharks are not cuddly kittens, they can and will hurt you if provoked, they do not warrant mindless terror. Sharks need to be respected, but should not be described as toothy killing machines for the purpose of fear mongering. Sharks need to be understood as a natural part of the ocean ecosystem, keeping prey populations in check, just as lions do in African grasslands. Or for an example closer to home, just as wolves and big cats once kept deer populations under control in the North Eastern United States. Has anyone else hit a deer with their vehicle? I have, and it sucks. But rather than cursing the less than genius herbivore, I cursed the humans that systematically removed all their predators. Humans are notoriously bad at learning from their mistakes. What unexpected impacts will the loss of ocean predators have? Let's just say, I hope you like jellyfish (

Photo: Hannah Cohen, Broadreach Student 2014
This summer, I can't help but be extra jazzed about the Shark Week phenomenon. I have just returned home from an unforgettable, sharky summer in Fiji teaching some of the brightest, most inspirational students I have met. The course included daily lectures about shark behavior and conservation taught by me, but the real teachers this summer were the sharks themselves. We spent 8 days (spread out over 3 weeks) going on shark dives with Beqa Adventure Divers ( getting to know the majestic bull sharks of Beqa Lagoon. Each day with BAD included two dives. The first sent us down to 100' to observe up to 70 bull sharks feeding on tuna heads reclaimed from the local fish market. After reaching the No Decompression Limit (NDL) of about 15 minutes, 15 more minutes
were spent watching Grey Reef Sharks at 30' feeding on tuna scraps, and then finally ten minutes at 15 feet watching white and black tip reef sharks also feeding on scraps. After a one hour surface interval, it was back down to 60 feet for 30 minutes of bull sharks feeding on tuna heads falling from suspended bins and being hand fed. While watching these feedings, we got to know individual sharks by their markings and behaviors. We recognized patterns and became aware of behaviors to look out for. Getting to spend so much time with these sharks really allowed the students and I to feel as though we had gotten to know these very special sharks. Sometimes the encounters were infused with adrenaline as the sharks became frenzied over the tuna heads, but in general, the whole experience was surprisingly peaceful. The sharks move in such a graceful and rhythmic manner, it is practically hypnotic. One might think that it is impossible to take your eyes off the sharks for fear that they will attack if you look away, but really you can't stop looking at them because they are so beautiful.

White Shark, South Africa
I have always been a shark lover. I think a big part of my love for sharks comes from a natural tendency to vote for the underdog. If everyone else is going to be fearful and hateful towards sharks, it is in my nature to embrace them. I have been on other shark dives (in Honduras), I have encountered sharks naturally (Bahamas), and I have even witnessed Great Whites from a cage in South Africa. Every time
I have an experience like this, my vote of confidence in sharks is reinforced. I know that not everyone has the time or interest to travel and dive with sharks, but I really believe that if more people had the opportunity to see sharks in this way rather than in the sensationalized yellow journalism on Discovery, there would be more outcry against the senseless slaughter of sharks in the global ocean. In recent years, voices have been getting louder and stronger in the defense of sharks, but there is still so much unnecessary killing bloodying the high seas.

As this year's Shark Week goes on, enjoy the entertainment of it. But remember that the goal of Shark Week is entertainment, just as was the goal of the legendary Jaws. Try to keep emotions in check and do not succumb to the fear factor. If you need help, just remember that more people die each year from shaking a vending machine so violently that it tips over and crushes them, than die from shark attacks. If this doesn't make you laugh and help keep things in perspective, I don't know what will.

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