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Monday, August 3, 2009

Sea Things #8: Caribbean Reef Sharks

Sea Things is a regular feature on my blog where I profile a different sea creature. Look for it weekly, or something close to weekly.



It is Shark Week on Discovery Channel, so I thought I'd talk a little bit about sharks today.

The shark species that I have spent the most time with underwater is the Caribbean Reef Shark.  They're found all over the Caribbean, and we've seen them in Turks & Caicos, Belize, and Little Cayman (well, and someone made a huge deal out of telling us about a Reef Shark sighting in Bonaire Labor Day 2008).  Their scientific name is Carcharhinus perezi and they eat what you'd expect them to eat - fish and other sea creatures.  They get to be about 10 feet long, and the largest one I've ever seen was about 8 feet long.  If you see a shark underwater, the signal for it is to put your hand on top of your forehead like it's a shark fin.



Here's the thing about sharks, though.  They've gotten this bad reputation for being horrible man-eaters.  You can see me in the photo above, hanging with a Caribbean Reef Shark.  He's not threatening me, he's not trying to eat my arm off.  There was even food nearby, and I hung out there for most of the dive.  I am still alive to talk about it, complete with all of my limbs.  In fact, later in the same trip, I swam into a swim-through soon after some fish heads had been released into the water, when sharks were circling.  I turned on my flash light to see what was in a hole in the swim through, and lo and behold - a big shark swimming right at my head.  Oh no!  What did he do?  Did he bite me?  Did he at least take a nibble to see what I tasted like?  No, he swam past me, paying me no attention at all.

Despite what you might see in the movie Jaws, which is in fact fictional, you shouldn't fear sharks.  Do shark attacks happen?  Yes, sometimes, but often when they are provoked, or when there is food in the water, or when they can't see what it is they are eating.  Although, too, some sharks are more vicious than others.  I wouldn't get in the water with an Oceanic White Tip Shark, for example.  Oceanic White Tips aren't found on beaches, though.  I've watched Jaws a couple of times recently, and I laugh at it, thinking to myself that it is no different that something like Godzilla -- I don't fear lizards, even though I've seen a large one attack Tokyo in a film.  The thing is, though, people take Jaws seriously.  They really think all of that is true and reasonable.  It's not.  It's fiction.  I really dislike that movie (it's not even that good when just taken at face value without the shark conservation angle).

As much as people feel like they need to be afraid of sharks, it is really sharks that should be afraid of people.  Sharks are endangered -- they are losing food due to overfishing, and losing their habitat due to pollution and more.  Even better, 73 million sharks die a year in order to support the shark fin trade.  What is that?  Well, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in China (you can also find it at some Chinese restaurants... it is still served in London's Chinatown and was served at Columbia's Asean Bistro until just a few years ago).  To fin a shark, they are dragged onto a boat, their fins are cut off and then the rest of the shark is thrown back in.  It drowns because it can no longer swim.  Often, sharks are finned before reaching maturity and therefore do not have the opportunity to reproduce.  Even if they do, they don't have as many babies as other species of fish.  They just cannot reproduce fast enough to replenish their populations.  Shark finning is illegal in the US, but is still practiced in other countries. 

So, let's talk about Shark Week.  It would be great if Discovery Channel showed programming during shark week that talked about the endangered shark, and pushed the need to stop these practices.  But, no.  This years shark week premiers with the show "Blood in the Water," which talks about a shark attack that inspired Jaws.  Discovery has been said to be trying to “tap into people’s fear of sharks and bring back the fear of Shark Week.”  Oh, goodie.  They are showing commercials for saving sharks, but how much are people going to want to save a man-eating threat that people constantly fear?  Plus, the conservation ads are run back to back with ads like these.  Seems like Discovery's attempts to get people to protect sharks is kind of half-hearted, huh?

The summer of 2001, if you recall, the news media covered shark attacks constantly.  I remember footage of sharks near beaches, coverage of a couple of shark attacks that had occurred, etc.  This was all forgotten in September of 2001 when more important things took over the news, though. Just for the record, here is a nice chart that shows the fatalities in the United States in 2001, the year that I remember shark attacks being publicized the most, due to various causes.  Note where sharks fall in the list.



Sharks are not to be feared, they are to be respected.  They are amazingly incredible creatures that can be exciting and studied without all of the horror and drama.  In fact, the real horror is what WE are doing to THEM, and to all of our oceans.  So, do me a favor.  Don't eat shark, especially shark fin soup (shark contains loads of mercury anyway).  Boycott restaurants with shark fin on the menu.  Protest against Discovery's irresponsible shark programming by signing the petition.  And most of all, work to protect these awesome animals, and the ocean in general.

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Is there a creature that you would like to see featured in Sea Things? If so, shoot me an email and if I can, I'll write about it.

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