Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A Shift in Paradigm

Not just 'a' tiger shark - this female tiger shark is "Olga"
Photograph: Wolfgang Leander, Tiger Beach 2007

We fear what we don't know; we fear what we don't see; we fear being devoured alive by a marine monster of our archaic collective subconscious. Add to that the movie "Jaws" and the media's usual coverage of sharks, and you have an engrained perception of these magnificent creatures in the mind of the masses that is completely undeserved.

Last weekend my dad and I were in West Palm Beach to see David, Dee, and Brendal (there will be a separate blog on who they are - enough to say that they are some great people, and true shark lovers). As we started talking about sharks - "a shift in paradigm" came up as a topic. How do you change the way people perceive sharks?

Dolphins, seals, dogs, cats, and most other furry animals (rats?, skunks? :-) can connect with people; they are cute, have "human traits", and are just adorable - everyone wants to save them.

Dolphins can be dangerous if they are in the wrong mood, never mind the smile on their faces. I have once been charged by a protective seal bull in the Galapagos - and let me tell you, there was nothing cute about him - he had an angry face, HUGE conical teeth, a body size as intimidating as that of a real fighting bull. On the flip side, one has also protected me from a shark.

The point I am trying to make is that we have to change the bad image sharks have, perhaps by playing a word association game: shark = love, endangered, beautiful ... not fear, scary, death, killing machine, Jaws.

And while I know many readers will disagree with me on this, I do think we actually need to humanize sharks, we need people to be able to relate to, and care for them in some form or shape.

It is a human trait to humanize our fellow creatures - we do that as we spend more time with animals. Disney has been doing this for some 80 years. It is amazing to see how accurately these cartoonists capture the animal characteristics / behavior and combine them with human expressions - who will forget Bruce in "Finding Nemo"?

Sharks can be presented in a different light, not necessarily as cartoons... Give them faces, give them names.

As most creatures sharks have unique personalities; divers who have had the privilege of seeing the same sharks in one given spot year after year will not only recognize them by some dents on their fins or distinctive body marks but also by their individual character. Thus, it would almost seem normal that these divers give their shark buddies names.

Ask divers who went with Jim Abernethy to Tiger Beach to tell you about "Emma” a 12-13 ft tiger shark - and they will most likely show you a picture they took of her, a lovely, most serene shark everybody falls in love with.

Those who went to Tiger Beach with Scottie Smith will know immediately who you mean if you mention "Olga", another striped beauty as large as "Emma". Then there is "Julia" - "Julia" is a lovely Great Hammerhead Shark girl, shy and curious at the same time.

"Dartboard", "Mathilde", "Ella" are some of the large, awesome tiger shark babes you will most likely meet on dive trips with Mark Addison in Aliwal Shoal (South Africa).

An almost legendary tiger shark is "Scarface" of Beqa Lagoon; she is a resident tiger lady measuring some very impressive 15-16ft.

Should these sharks ever get caught and killed by mindless fishermen, or netted by the infamous Natal Sharks Board shark nets in South Africa, you could be sure that their loss will be mourned by countless divers from all over the world who found them to be dear aquatic friends.

The 'shift in paradigm' we meant is precisely this: If you don't consider sharks a menace or a nuisance but can instead shed tears about the death of a shark you have become close to, either directly or through a filmed story or photographs, you will be able to cry for all those anonymous sharks who are being slaughtered brutally because of their fins, and are slowly vanishing into the mist of extinction...

A word of caution lest some readers get this all wrong: Sharks are NOT pets, even if they have friendly sounding names such as "Emma" or "Julia"; sharks are very efficient predators, and as such potentially dangerous, at least those you are likely to encounter in the wild.

Sharks deserve our admiration, our protection, and our respect. Do NOT engage in close interaction with sharks, no matter what size, unless you have acquired sufficient experience in understanding their body language.

Needless to say, interacting with sharks requires much sensitivity for animals in general, and a high degree of "oceanic emotional intelligence" when it comes to them.


Shark Diver said...

This is a seriously worthy and well thought out post. Agreed, names are important for critters at dive sites.

Beyond important - it is what gives us the anchor to want to save these animals and protect the sites we operate in.

Well said, mind if we repost?

Felix Leander said...

Not at all...

Amanda Cotton said...

Agreed, great post Felix.

RTSea said...

Good post, Felix.

I'm not a big proponent of naming wild animals, but I can see some value to the approach as long as, as you point out, people don't cross the line and think of the animal as a pet.

If it can break down the barrier of seeing sharks as simply anonymous predators worthy only of a cruel death, then great.

the One called "Bitey".... said...

I'm happy you've addressed the debate of "humanizing", as I've seen the other side of this argument addressed more often.
It's all too easy for sheeple to climb on-board conservation efforts for the cute and the fuzzy, since we can say "oh look, he's doing (some human-like activity)", etc.
Indeed, one of the most effective ways I've found for communicating my experiences with sharks is to impart these human-like behavioral qualities - because then people have a frame of reference with which to put the situation in their own heads ("she looked at me and said, 'oh, you're that dude' and slowly swam beneath me", etc.)

In general however, for me personally as a stout anti-humanist, I would say that to humanize is to denigrate, but that's just me...