A Women's Place in a Shark's World
By Amber Jones
And no, I’m not metaphorically referring to men.
Sharks. The deep-seeded, blood curdling fear that every baby boomer and beyond had instilled in them thanks to that small Steven Spielberg production, ‘Jaws’.
Have you ever been the first or last one out in the water dangling your delicious limbs over your surfboard wondering if it’s ‘feeding time’ and if you should make your way in because of the ‘feeling’ you've got? Or been sitting out the back when a school of fish have jumped, and you’ve wondered what must be chasing it? Or your leggy has brushed up against your knee and your heart leapt to your throat?
Have you ever actually asked yourself why you felt this fear though?
The hard facts show that more people die annually from taking selfies, being stampeded by Hippopotamuses & struck by lightning than from shark attacks. Yet we have completely and without reason, other than a Hollywood Box office hit, demonized these creatures to be man-eating machines.
We are alerted by our local beaches to clear out of the water when they spot a fin, we support the culling of sharks & we happily slice their fins off and let them sink and die slowly for the delicacy of bowls of soup.
I am most certainly not a marine biologist/shark scientist/shark behaviourist but I am currently engaged to one. So naturally as an underwater photographer, our careers have beautifully synchronised to share similar paths and I have been exposed to some incredible, intense but also humbling shark/human interactions and feel it’s now my duty to share my experiences with Hinemoana* worldwide to try and tilt the current paradigm toward more positive perceptions, like Riley, my fiancé has done for me.
The waterwoman’s place in a sharks’ ocean can be a totally coexistent one. I’ve been fortunate enough to share sea space in close proximity with both Blue and Mako sharks, cage-less, multiple times and still can write an article like this not only fully intact, but full of appreciation & humility for these animals. I believe that with the right education and tools we’ll be able to make educated decisions about recreating (specifically surfing) with these animals present. We are after all, in their home, enjoying their sunny living rooms, eating from their pantry, so a healthy level of respect should always be present.
As a surfer, there are certainly things to be wary of when surfing isolated breaks. A few species rely on ambush approaches and many can’t determine what their prey is before they bite, so murky water is never ideal for surfers. Especially murky water at the heart of a river mouth (where the current will carry food sources right into the lineup, increasing the chance of an unwanted interaction).
Another fun thing to learn is that your eyes can be the best communication tool for a mutually impossible underwater language. Your eyes can let the shark know you’ve registered their presence, you’re dominant and you’re not willing to be the food source. It sounds completely counter-intuitive but if an overly curious shark starts to circle you on your board, the best thing you can do (if it’s not murky) is jump in and look at him/her straight in the eye. Easier said than done, I know.
Your aforementioned ‘delicious’ limbs are actually not delicious at all to a shark. If you are unlucky enough to be bitten, it is more than likely an experimental ‘what are you, you weird looking seal?’ bite rather than a malicious dinner feast. Nine times out of ten, a shark, will take off once it gets a taste for your disgusting human flesh; once it realises you’re not a fat, oily, blubbery seal, a tantalising turtle or a succulent squid.
In the case of spearfishing, your chances of running into a shark are pretty high. Especially if you are chumming (crushing fish/crustaceans to attract other, larger fish). It isn’t uncommon for sharks to show up unannounced and politely (sometimes not so politely) try and take a diver’s catch from their belts or guns. After all, if someone was in your kitchen preparing a delicious meal but intended to take it home without sharing it with you, you’d ask them to leave some for you too. The “right” thing to do in every different case, varies with the species and mood of the shark. Sometimes, for everyone’s safety you should give up the fish you’ve snagged and satiate the hungry/grumpy shark but sometimes you should put up that fight (using confident body language) because you’ve worked hard to hunt that fish for your family and that shark is unfairly just looking for an easy dinner. Again, totally varied upon each situation but these are accounts I’ve witnessed and if it helps one of you tackle a certain situation, with confidence and zero consequence, then that’s a win.
From an ecosystem perspective, sharks are 100% vital to keeping our oceans healthy. They are the doctors and garbagemen of the sea, eliminating all the dead/sick fish from the food chain therefore encouraging healthy genetics being reproduced through various species. They’ve been around long before dinosaurs even walked the earth and deserve our respect and protection for their continued efforts in our ecosystem.
While I am yet to be met with a shark interaction whilst surfing, I’m hoping a takeaway from this article will be the positive side of sharks that we are less often exposed to, and by helping understand how sharks have behaved during my personal interactions, you can make a decision whether or not to surf in certain areas or find it easier to calm yourself when that cheeky leggy of yours brushes up your leg.