Our fear of sharks is tinged with hid­den guilt

A sight­ing sparked panic at a Span­ish beach but our ir­rec­on­cil­able at­ti­tudes to the sea ought to oc­cupy us more

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Philip Hoare

Ashark on a Span­ish beach is a vividly ter­ri­fy­ing im­age. The hol­i­day idyll threat­ened by a sharp-finned dep­u­ta­tion from the deep. This is no “snakes on a plane” fan­tasy. Po­ten­tial dis­as­ter looms. There are chil­dren out there, for God’s sake. In a re­sort where the sand may be raked daily, and where a mar­garita is never more than a few eu­ros away, such dis­rup­tive vi­sions seem all the sharper.

Can’t some­body do some­thing about it? The an­i­mal was even­tu­ally cap­tured – and was found to be al­ready wounded. It is a para­ble in a meme (to mix nar­ra­tive metaphors): our in­fan­tile fear for our in­fants be­comes the in­no­cent an­i­mal’s death. In this case, via a har­poon – ad­min­is­tered ei­ther be­fore or af­ter its visi­ta­tion.

I swim ev­ery sin­gle day in the murky seas of the So­lent – the strait that sep­a­rates the south of Eng­land from the Isle of Wight – un­der the shadow, not of a beach um­brella, but an oil re­fin­ery. Wad­ing out in the dark be­fore dawn I of­ten get bit­ten by fish. A nip on the an­kles from a bass is no Spiel­berg sce­nario. No one’s go­ing to need a big­ger boat. But you’d be a fool not to take a shark se­ri­ously.

Un­like cetaceans, their ri­vals for apex po­si­tion in the sea, sharks seek no con­nec­tion with us. I’ve never felt so safe in the wa­ter as I have done when swim­ming near whales. Even when a pod of ma­raud­ing, tran­sient orca drove me out of the wa­ter in Sri Lanka ear­lier this year (af­ter ram­ming and at­tempt­ing to over­turn our fish­ing boat), I could ra­tio­nalise their be­hav­iour as mam­malian, sen­tient. Ad­mirable, even. With sharks, it is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

Re­cently, a TV com­pany from Barcelona thought it would make a good se­quence if I swam in the city’s aquar­ium in the com­pany of its sand tiger sharks. With whales and dol­phins, one senses a mu­tual cu­rios­ity. But these crea­tures, slid­ing by, looked at me through glau­cous, rep­til­ian eyes. There was no fo­cus there, no re­ac­tion. I felt that the only in­ter­est they had in me was in the pal­try mouth­fuls with which my puny, bony body might sup­ple­ment their diet. Last sum­mer in the Azores, from the prow of an in­flat­able boat, I saw a ham­mer­head shark twist­ing and turn­ing in the sea be­low me. Even though I was safely above, I felt an atavis­tic fris­son, as if it might yet leap up at me.

It is our imag­i­na­tion that is at work here. But also, per­haps, a sub­con­scious sense of guilt. This same sub­lime ocean, al­ways so out of our reach, is now poi­son­ing those mon­sters. There will be more plas­tic than fish in it by 2050. Our only res­i­dent pod of or­cas have been un­able to rear a healthy calf for 23 years be­cause of PCBs and heavy me­tals in the seas. A rare Cu­vier’s beaked whale stranded on the Isle of Skye was the first cetacean death to be defini­tively due to plas­tic: 4kg of zi­plock and car­rier bags.

Mean­while, an­thro­pogenic noise – in an en­vi­ron­ment that for al­most all of its ex­is­tence knew only the crack­ing of pis­tol shrimps or the echo-lo­cat­ing clicks of cetaceans – now drowns out all else: diesel-pow­ered freight, seis­mic sur­veys for oil, mil­i­tary sonar. When the ship­ping lanes from the US east coast to Europe were closed in the days af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks, sci­en­tists study­ing right whale vo­cal­i­sa­tions re­alised their sub­jects had stopped shout­ing.

There are deep ir­rec­on­cil­ables here: what we want the sea to be (a re­sort for our dreams, the edge of oth­er­ness) and what we have turned it into (a cis­tern for our sins). Any wa­ter is a mor­tal place . But the wa­ter is an im­mor­tal place, too, a place of mag­i­cal tran­si­tions, for all species.

The dark shark slides into the clear warm wa­ter, laden with all of our pre­sup­po­si­tions, all the vi­tal dis­con­nec­tions be­tween us and the rest of cre­ation. It is dumb, stupid, dull-eyed, to our minds. But per­haps, in its dim, an­te­dilu­vian me­mory, which pre­dates ours by 400 mil­lion years, it thinks the same about us. And as fear­ful as we may be of it, our fear of its il­lim­itable do­main re­minds us that we are still alive and kick­ing.

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