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Monday 16 September 2019

Diving with ‘Monsters’

Why are we so fascinated by monsters? Creatures of the jungles, of the deepest oceans, and of historic eras in our planet’s past have long captured our imaginations. Perhaps it’s our evolutionary instinct to learn from our enemies, and to study to outwit and outcompete our rivals. One thing is true: we have long been fascinated with monsters, and where better to find the unknown, the mysterious and the monstrous, than in the 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of oceans that stretches across our planet?

...Or, perhaps, in a small Blue Planet aquarium near Chester. Which is where I’m taking you now.

Shark in the Blue Planet aquarium, Chester. © TWDK

When did my fascination with sharks begin? I can date it almost precisely. In 2007, I was taking my A levels, and for my English language writing paper we received two pre-release fact packs. One pack was about constructing the sewage system in London in the 1830s, the other was about sharks. Most of all, I was fascinated by the ampullae of Lorenzini, tiny little black dots that peppered the noses of these beasts and acts as electroreceptors – an additional, powerful sensor. This sensor put sharks into a class outside the animals we know: a creature that can detect in ways we cannot imagine, and even follow the magnetic lines of the earth.

Later, I would also read about tonic immobility, the powerful paralysis that overtakes some species of shark when they are turned on their backs, and necromones, the powerful chemical stench of a dying shark that alarms its fellow species so terribly that they will flee for miles. This 'death recognition system' may be an ancient survival tactic founded 400 million years ago, and exist across more species than we realise, including ants and termites.

Why are we so afraid of death?

We invent gods and goddesses, afterlifes, sacrifices, pilgrimages, and prophecies all to deal with our fear of death. We fight ageing with medicine, regulate against suicide, murder, and euthanasia, and spend huge amounts of money making the world safer and treating health problems.

But even our monsters are afraid of the death of one of their own. ...And perhaps predators are more afraid of death – because it whispers of something even more terrible and powerful than they are. Some animals, such as ants, collect their dead, whilst others, like sharks, run away from it[1].

There’s certainly no running to be done in a shark tank. It’s not only a limited size, but fully wetsuited and tanked up, a diver is heavy, awkward and liable to flip over onto their back.

My mother panicked when I told her I was swimming with sharks. Even when I explained to her that it’s impossible to keep very large sharks like great whites in captivity – we just don’t know how. What was that panic in aid of? Wild animals can be unpredictable, but I was with trained professionals in a managed environment. Sharks are responsible for just 60 unprovoked attacks per year worldwide, and not all of those are fatal (average 6 per year). Most shark attacks are a single bite – believed to be a case of mistaken identity or curiosity. Compared to deaths by other animals including mosquitoes (2 million people per year), hippos (2,900 Africans per year), and even lawnmowers (950 Americans per year), sharks are pretty pathetic. And their statistics dwarf by comparison to the 1.25 million road deaths every year. And yes, we encounter cars far more often than sharks, but this doesn’t even include non fatal accidents. In fact, we are much more of a threat to sharks than they are to us, from harvesting for shark fin soup to habitat loss due to man-made climate change. But cars seem safe. We made them. Sharks are ‘monsters’. They are other to us.

Sharks in the Blue Planet aquarium, Chester. © TWDK
That was certainly how it felt to me, descending into the alien world of underwater. I’m not a diver, and breathing through a mask did not come easily – it is an unnatural act; every instinct speaks against it (and apparently I have more of those instincts than most). I thought as I saw submerged in the practice tank, staring at a white wall and trying to remember to breathe, that this fear is probably something like what my mother felt when I told her I was swimming with sharks: the unknown coming in from all sides, overwhelming you, buffeting you. For my mother, sharks were the monsters, but to me, the water was far more monstrous.

After managing my initial fear, I was let down into the shark tank. Their world. Slowly, edgingly, lowering myself into the water because air tanks are heavy, and water changes your weight.

And there I was. In. In amongst a cloud of steadily pacing of the classic-looking blacktip sharks and the sand tigers, the giants of Blue Planet’s aquarium with a mishmash of needle-like teeth that look like someone has just picked up a handful of cocktail sticks. The motionless nurse shark dozing on the sandy floor – only a few shark species can lie still, and the nurse shark is one of them: many have to keep moving to pass oxygen across their gills and breathe, which means they also sleep in motion, though, much like dragons, they’re only ever half asleep! The immense ray, the fish that like you to sprinkle rocks on their backs to defoliate, the funny, flattened-looking guitar sharks, and the leopard shark (or zebra shark) – stripey as infants and spotted as adults, these creatively patterned sharks were probably my favourite: curious and circling, their long, elegant bodies rippling through the water, guided by swaying, sword-like tails.

One thing that struck me was the beautiful curved shape of these creatures, like an elongated raindrop as they undulated through the water. We often see sharks photographed from below or directly alongside, making their snouts look more pointed and their middles more bulky than they appear at other angles. Watching them swim, these monsters of the ocean, I was inexorably reminded of my childhood pond dipping for tadpoles – and watching them wiggle similarly in a dark of pond water. The first awakenings of my curiosity.

Learn more about sharks

why don't all references have links?

[1] Chemical shark repellent: Myth or fact? The effect of a shark necromone on shark feeding behavior, Eric M. Stroud, Craig P. O’Connell, Patrick H. Rice, Nicholas H. Snow, Brian B. Barnes, Mohammed R. Elshaer, James E. Hanson, Ocean & Coastal Management 97 (2014) 50e57.

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