Friday, June 5, 2009

The Conclusion of Unmentionables, part 3

One of my favorite movies of all time. And sharks aren't all bad! "Fish are friends, not food!"

So, where does this leave us? And more importantly, what have I learned?

Well, for starters (and I've said it before, but it takes on a new meaning when conquering one's fears), I'm grateful for friends and their support. Yes, I'll swim in open water, and most definitely, I'm willing to run with all might and gusto into the open ocean during a race. BUT (and that's purposefully a big butt), if it weren't for Shannon and Stephen and their incredible support, I don't know if I could have done it. To them - I am grateful.

Unfortunately, two days after our swim, they moved to Berkley. Now what does that tell you?

Just kidding. Actually, they are off to pursue their post doctorate, and while I'm extremely sad that they've left, I know the move is GREAT for them.

Sharks are definitely out there - they are in the water and every time we go in, we risk an encounter.

However. With the hundreds of thousands of beach goers and swimmers each year, the number of attacks pale in comparison. I mentioned the statistics in the previous post (part 2), but they are worth repeating again. According to the International Shark Attack File, there were 59 unprovoked shark attacks world-wide in 2008, down from 71 in 2007. Four of those were fatal, including local San Diego triathlete and retired veterinarian, David Martin.

And while the loss of life is incredibly tragic, and my heart goes out to the victims family and friends, statistically we are in more danger driving to the beach than being in the water.

And in all actuality, sharks have much more to fear from humans than we do from them. According to "Planet in Peril" in 2008, an excess of 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year.

Worldwide, shark populations - especially those living near shore - are in serious decline. Over-fishing (largely due to the high demand of shark's fins for Shark Fin soup, a high priced Chines and Asian delicacy), game fishing for trophy/sport (example can be found here), coupled with the fact that sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and (in many cases), only give birth to a small amount of well-developed pups (young), has lead to an alarming drop in the world's shark population.

"This loss of top predators could hold serious implications for the entire marine ecosystem, greatly affecting food webs throughout this region,” Francesco Ferretti, a doctoral student in marine biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and lead author for a study of which charted the population decline of five pelagic Atlantic Shark species.

From a statistical standpoint, I feel sorry for the shark. Heck - from a nature-loving standpoint, I feel sorry for sharks.

Killed only for its fins or to become a trophy on someone's wall. How sad. How truly tragic. This amazing animal, evolving over millions of years and developing incredible senses and sensory organs to match, most definitely does not deserve a fate such as this.

And really, they've gotten a bad wrap. In part, because they are misunderstood. Though I joke about it (and yes, I'm still nervous when I go in the water), they are NOT mindless eating machines, but instead, highly evolved and complex predators that - according to Peter Klimley in "The Secret Life of Sharks" - find human beings unpalatable (usually), instead preferring a diet of blubbery, calorie-rich pinnipeds.

Bottom line: sharks aren't out to get us, and in the off chance that we ARE bitten (especially with The Great White), its often times a case of mistaken identity.

(I won't go into the human factor, ie adventure seekers paying large sums of money to dive with sharks. That's an entirely different kitten and caboodle. But, in my mind, there is little difference between these people and other individuals with little or no climbing experience, willing to pay upwards of $65,000 to be guided to the top of Mt. Everest. Where do we cross the line? Is there a line that should NOT be crossed? How much are YOU willing to pay and is it worth it? How many risks are people willing to take? I'm definitely not promoting a life in which we stay at home doing nothing - but I believe that many individuals are so enamored to DO something, they don't stop to think if they SHOULD be doing it in the first place. Ah yes, morals and personal ethics can be a slippery slope... Too many questions for this small post...)

Back to the sharks.

Why so scary?

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the JAWS phenomenon.

Peter Benchley published JAWS in 1974, a time when little was know about the apex predator. Inspired by a string of fatal shark attacks off the New Jersey Coast in 1916 coupled with the 1964 news story of a Great White Shark caught by Frank Mundus off Long Island weighing an estimated 4,550 pounds. During a taped interview for "A Look Inside Jaws", Benchley noted he began thinking about, "a story about a shark that attacks people and what would happen if it came in and wouldn't go away."

The novel, and the movie to a greater extent opened to critical acclaim, and forever changed how people viewed the ocean. In fact, beach attendance was down in the summer of 1975 due to the film's incredible impact.

But this isn't the only time in recent history that beach goers were scared through sensationalism of the media or through the entertainment industry. In 2001, Time magazine dubbed that summer as, "The Summer of The Shark" after several shark attacks, ranging from Florida, to Hawaii, to California, up to New York, and North Carolina.

I believe that Benchley himself accurately summarized our fear of sharks when he wrote that, "Shark attacks on human beings generate a tremendous amount of media coverage partly because they occur so rarely, but mostly, I think, because people are, and always have been, simultaneously intrigued and terrified by sharks. Sharks come from a wing of the dark castle where our nightmares live—deep water beyond our sight and understanding—and so they stimulate our fears and fantasies and imaginations.”

So we return to our own perceptions, fears, and insecurities. Statistics, knowing that there are only a few shark species out of the nearly 400 total that have attacked humans do little to deter our fears.

To quote the great Yoda of Star Wars (and because Nathaniel does this impersonation all the time), "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." In this case, suffering for the sharks (over fished to the point of dangerous decline and misunderstood and pursued as a trophy prize) and suffering for humans who are terrified to swim past the breakers.

Okay, the last one is a stretch. Humans do not suffer because they don't swim past the breakers; let's be serious. But the shark, having evolved for 400 million years, is on a serious decline due to human beings.

Which creature should really be afraid?

I know that I often write about my fear of sharks - or Unmentionables. Will I ever be truly comfortable in the Open Ocean? Perhaps not. But I'm working hard to overcome that fear. And deep down I know that the fear itself has little to do with the shark. The shark is representative of something at a much deeper, at a much more primal level: fear of being out of my element in unfamiliar territory without having control of my surroundings. And I'm working on that...believe me, I am.

Swimming in The Cove last week and writing about sharks has been really great for me. They are a subject that I'm truly passionate about - to my detriment at times (knowing HOW most Great Whites attack and then staring straight down for the first part of my swim convinced that I would be rushed at from below...) In the end though, its the shark that I fear for.

Thanks for reading my series.


Mel said...

First lets start off stop posting photo's of the big teeth are going to start giving me nighmares:) at least you can swim...and I just float around on my back as a good target...hey do they go after someone who pretends they are dead???? Look into that for me Marit:)ha!!

LZ said...

I lived in San Diego for 10 years and I was always scared of the ocean. For my swim team we used to have "practice" occasionally at the Cove and I used to cry while swimming there! I use to see stingrays on the bottom there, that freaked me out way more than the sharks for some reason! Good Luck at Ironman, you are totally going to rock!!

runningyankee said...

just have to say that everytime i see the "unmentionables" title i immediately think of underwear...:)

Jennifer Harrison said...

AHHH! No more shark pictures! :)) I was thinking of this when I did the OW 3 miles yesterday AM - in a small LAKE of fresh water!!! HA :)) you never know... :)

Mama Simmons said...

I saw an article online the other day about the beaches where shark attacks are most common. #2 on the list? North Shore, Oahu. Good thing we swim up there *all the time* in the summers! In fact, there is a swim race points series every summer that we do (4 races) that are totally my favorite and I'm entered in all 4 again this summer. Gulp.

Mama Simmons said...

But don't worry- Kona wasn't on the list of shark attack beaches. ;)

Elizabeth A. Rich said...

Can I just tell you how much I love that you wrote not one, but THREE blog posts on sharks :-) You are too funny!!!!

Shan said...

hehehehe I watched Finding Nemo last night - YEAH! You must promise me that you'll swim at the Cove even though we aren't there! I swam in SF Bay yesterday... :)