From gods to monsters: how did we come to concern the shark? | Australian books

The most haunting of our imagined monsters stay hidden as they stalk us, putting after we least suspect it, whereas we’re stress-free, or at play. The now-extinct megalodon roams the ocean unseen and unseeable, besides in our imaginations. And it typically surfaces in our consciousness after we are at relaxation or play by the seaside. The explanation that the nice shark holds such a chilling grip on us have to be sought within the very lengthy historical past of the interplay of sharks with individuals. Is there something extra spine-chilling than the considered being eaten alive?

There’s a contentious idea that our species went by means of an aquatic section throughout its evolution, in accordance with which the lengthy intervals our ancestors spent within the sea foraging for marine life account for our hairlessness, our thick layer of subcutaneous fats, and our skills to swim and maintain our breath. If the speculation is true, then maybe this primeval foray into the water has one thing to do with our deep concern of submerged predators.

Extra sure is the concept that no less than 50,000 years in the past, individuals have been making heroic oceanic voyages, for instance, to achieve Australia. In these days, properly earlier than the widespread despoliation of the oceans, these first intrepid mariners should have crossed waters that always roiled with sharks and their prey. Maybe they even misplaced the odd companion to snapping cartilaginous jaws. Regardless of the case, as quickly as our ancestors started plunging into the ocean to journey or to use it for meals, they uncovered themselves to the chance of encountering sharks.

oceanic whitetip shark
‘The oceanic whitetip is a deepwater species of shark that has been severely affected by the breakdown of pre-Christian taboos that protected it.’ {Photograph}: Rodrigo Friscione/Getty Photos/Picture Supply

Archaeological excavations have supplied some convincing proof that sharks have preyed on people for a lot of millennia. In 2021 researchers introduced the unearthing of the skeleton of a shark-attack sufferer in a Japanese cemetery that was virtually 3,000 years previous. The unlucky individual was almost definitely a fisherman and his bones bore virtually 800 marks made by serrated enamel – almost definitely from a tiger shark or an important white. The marks included deep incisions, punctures, striations and cuts, and by mapping them on a three-dimensional mannequin, researchers have been in a position to inform that the sufferer was alive when attacked. One among his arms was cleanly sawn off, presumably the results of a determined try to interrupt free from the predator. And each legs had been severed from the torso within the assault, one among which had been positioned the wrong way up on the corpse previous to its burial.

As ugly because the discover is, we’re lucky certainly to have such proof of a prehistoric shark assault, first as a result of buried shark-attack victims should certainly be within the minority, because the our bodies of many victims are by no means recovered, and second as a result of it’s uncommon even for a buried physique to stay intact for 3,000 years.

Over time, many human communities have struck a steadiness between concern and respect for sharks, and in a number of the most oceangoing cultures of the world, each people and sharks thrived. As a result of sharks play important roles in marine ecosystems, this stay and let stay affiliation facilitates wholesome, secure meals chains, which convey actual advantages to people in addition to to the atmosphere.

Lots of the communities that preserve a respectful relationship with sharks have included the creatures into creation myths as ancestors or gods. In Māori mythology, Parata is the shark god who lives within the depths of the ocean. With every breath, he controls the oscillation of the tides. The Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa is the protector of fishermen, shielding them from the jaws of sharks and securing their security at sea. Sharks might be drawn to canoes and may even swim forward of them in ways in which make it seem that they’re guiding the people within the vessel, and naturally, sharks know the place the very best fishing grounds are, all of which can have influenced Fijian beliefs.

In Hawaii it was believed that the ancestors might manifest within the type of a shark and that sharks would information canoes and herd fish into nets. In Solomon Islands, sharks steer the transition from the dwelling to the spirit world. There, our bodies of the useless are laid on reefs at low tide, to be eaten by sharks, permitting the spirits of the deceased to hitch the ancestors. On Anaa Atoll within the Tuamotu archipelago, warriors take the title of the oceanic whitetip shark, and in massive areas of Polynesia sharks that stay within the open ocean (a few of that are identified man-eaters) are seen as taboo and can’t be killed or eaten.

Following the adoption of Christianity in Oceania within the early 1800s, lots of the beliefs defending sharks broke down and a few beforehand protected species have been intensively fished to the purpose that they vanished from the as soon as well-frequented waters. Solely in essentially the most distant and uninhabited of locations, akin to Caroline Island in Kiribati, or the privately owned Clipperton Island, can the complete glory of sharks earlier than human searching decimated them now be appreciated. In a spectacle harking back to the Pacific earlier than human exploitation, lots of of blacktipped reef sharks might be seen within the lagoon shallows there, whereas quite a few bigger sharks patrol offshore. All are so unafraid that they are going to chew on the paddles of rowers making for the shore and even nip at their toes as they wade on to the seashore.

The oceanic whitetip is a deepwater species of shark that has been severely affected by the breakdown of pre-Christian taboos that protected it. It’s a slow-moving, slow-growing species with a low reproductive charge and because it was killed in rising numbers by newly minted Christians, it went into swift decline.

One favoured methodology was to journey far out to sea and to make use of a goat as a lure. When the oceanic whitetips approached, the fishermen would lasso the sharks by the tail, one after the other, as they approached the bait.

As Europeans embarked upon the age of sail, voyaging to evermore distant elements of the globe, they encountered predatory sharks, in lots of circumstances for the primary time. Early English voyagers referred to them as sea-dogs, however finally the time period shark, derived from the Dutch phrase for scoundrel, was adopted. The spectacle of each a shark assault and a heroic rescue is eerily but superbly conveyed in a 1778 portray by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, held within the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork in Washington. It depicts a ghastly occasion that occurred within the 1740s, when 14-year-old orphan Brook Watson imprudently dived off a small boat he was engaged on within the Havana harbour, Cuba.

Inside view of a number of horrified onlookers, a panicked Watson was dragged underwater by an enormous shark that had latched on to his leg. He resurfaced as soon as, solely to be pulled beneath once more by the shark. A crew member lastly chased the shark away with a pole topped with a big hook. The creature left bearing Watson’s proper foot and onlookers have been in a position to rescue the lad. Amazingly, Watson lived to inform the story.

John Singleton Copley’ Watson and the Shark
John Singleton Copley’ Watson and the Shark depicts a ghastly shark assault in Havana harbour. {Photograph}: Ian Dagnall Computing/Alamy

Australia is world-renowned for its shark assaults and whereas numerous attention-grabbing assaults by nice whites have occurred lately, data of encounters with numerous shark species return to the very first European explorations of the continent. Shark Bay in Western Australia is famend for its huge tiger sharks. Their highly effective jaws are in a position to crack the shell of a sea turtle with ease and the creatures have a fearsome fame for consuming something they’ll get their jaws round, together with essentially the most indigestible of rubbish. Their ferocity was made plain by François Péron, the zoologist on the Baudin expedition, who in 1801 wrote:

The japanese aspect of Fauré Island [in Shark Bay] is infested with sharks exceptional for his or her measurement and voracity. One among these monsters virtually devoured Lefevre.

Such brazen assaults are extraordinarily uncommon at the moment, but they abound within the annals of early Australian exploration. It’s onerous to keep away from the conclusion that both massive sharks have develop into a lot rarer or extra cautious through the years.

An period swiftly passing?

Sharks are far slower to breed than many bony fish.

Having few younger, they’re unable to replenish their populations as shortly as people can decimate them. Tragically, the height of trophy searching that adopted within the subsequent century couldn’t have come at a worse time, coinciding with a dramatic discount in meals sources for the nice white shark. Populations of seals and whales had crashed resulting from industrial-scale human searching and by the Seventies many beforehand ample seal and cetacean species have been on the point of extinction.

Big Meg by Tim and Emma Flannery, August 2023
{Photograph}: Textual content Publishing

The psychology of trophy hunters displays the ethos of an period that’s, I hope, swiftly passing, one by which people are seen as pitted towards nature, fairly than being a part of it. Maybe western society was misguidedly trying to find a motive to beat the horrifying beast, to take again the facility that sharks appear to have over us, no less than after we enter their realm. As a substitute of preserving carcasses in formaldehyde, the pressing want is to protect the final of the nice dwelling predators, in order that stability and productiveness might be introduced again to ecosystems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *