Adam Hart: We’re gonna need a bigger boat

With all those lovely warm bodies thrashing around in the sea, the words ‘children’, ‘sweetshop’ and

With all those lovely warm bodies thrashing around in the sea, the words ‘children’, ‘sweetshop’ and ‘brutal inevitability’ spring to mind - Credit: Archant

Adam Hart talks sharks, and with all those lovely warm bodies thrashing around in the sea, the words ‘children’, ‘sweetshop’ and ‘brutal inevitability’ spring to mind.

Shark fin above ocean water / Photo: Digital Storm

Shark fin above ocean water / Photo: Digital Storm - Credit: Archant

If you ask people to name a ‘scary predator’, and you limit their choice to those that haven’t been wiped out by meteorite collisions or rifle bullets, then the chances are that the great white shark would be top of the list. It would certainly poll higher than the most common predator in the UK, the domestic cat, although I know which one I’d rather be fighting off. At least a shark is a solid ‘in your face’ animal, but taking on a cat is like fighting smoke. They are everywhere and nowhere, like angry furry ninjas. Of course I’d also have a distinct advantage over the great white shark, in that it is primarily an ocean-based animal, ill at ease in the confines of a modern lounge where I tend to live. That is not to say that a shark can’t do damage on land, as many an unwary angler has discovered, but I just don’t see one making it too far across my carpet. Certainly it would struggle on the stairs.

Great White Shark / Photo: Sergey Uryadnikov

Great White Shark / Photo: Sergey Uryadnikov - Credit: Archant

 

Banded sea snake / Photo: Nick Poling

Banded sea snake / Photo: Nick Poling - Credit: Archant

So, despite the clear shortcomings of the great white shark, it still remains a creature of nightmares. But the reality is that very few of us will ever encounter one. In fact, if you limit your ocean experience to watching The Poseidon Adventure every Christmas then I can guarantee that you need never fear the great white shark. The problem, of course, is that some people do not limit their water experiences to 1970s Gene Hackman films, and many of those same people happen to live in areas where great white sharks live. Places like Western Australia and South Africa. With all those lovely warm bodies thrashing around in the sea, the words ‘children’, ‘sweetshop’ and ‘brutal inevitability’ spring to mind.

 

The big problem for sharks though is that shark attacks aren’t a brutal inevitability. In fact, your chances of seeing a shark are pretty slim and the chances of persuading one to attack you are, unless you are doing something epically stupid, even slimmer. Even if a shark does decide to experiment with a bit of ‘surfer and turf’ there’s a good chance of being spat out because it turns out sharks aren’t that fond of what cannibals used to call ‘long pig’. All this means that shark attacks, whilst clearly being of immense interest, are neither common nor commonly fatal. Of course, we aren’t, sadly, living in an evidence-led society so across the world sharks are killed in large numbers out of unsubstantiated and irrational fear.

 

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The best way to avoid being attacked by a shark is to stay out of their habitat, but if that’s not an option there are plenty of shark-repelling products you can arm yourself with. These include a hi-tech device that attaches to your ankle like some kind of home-arrest offender tag. Emitting electric pulses, this anti-shark anklet confuses their finely tuned electric senses. At the other end of the tech scale is the shark-billy. This is a rigid, linear device with both penetrating and striking capabilities. Or, to put it more plainly, a sharpened stick. Now, call me a perfectionist but if the answer is a length of broom handle whittled into a Lord of the Flies weapon-of-last-resort then I am of the opinion that you need to be asking better questions. Luckily, scientists have been doing just that and what they’ve developed is already showing some encouraging results.

 

It turns out sharks really don’t like white banded sea snakes. All the time we are on the land fearing sharks, they are in the water going all weak at the fins over the thought of sea snakes. It’s a funny old world, but our knowledge of sharks’ visual systems and their seeming fear of sea snakes have led to the ‘shark suit’. Basically a wet suit with zebra stripes, the shark suit takes advantage of something biologists call Batesian mimicry. You can see much the same thing in the back garden, with all those wasp-striped hover flies, which although harmless gain protection from birds by mimicking something harmful. Early evidence suggests that shark-suited swimmers, divers and surfers, enrobed in striped neoprene trigger a similar response in sharks, who would rather avoid lunch altogether than risk a possible sea snake encounter. Anything that might help to stem the senseless killing of sharks to protect a tiny minority of people who knowingly put themselves at risk seems like a good thing to me. Just don’t wear the suits on the Africa plains – I suspect another fearsome predator might not be quite so scared.

 

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This article by Adam Hart is from the June 2014 issue of Cotswold Life

For more from Adam, follow him on Twitter: @AdamHartScience

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