Communicating with sharks

by Dr. Erich Ritter
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If you could ask people on the street to name the most dangerous animal in the ocean you could be assured that sharks would be on the top of everyone’s list. And why not? We hear it practically every day on the news that a shark has bit another person somewhere. What we don’t hear is how often other top and super predators cause injuries. And again, why not? Because sharks are the most perfect animals to thrive fear in people. Fear is what boosts ratings so why should the media try to change the erroneous image of sharks? They wouldn’t, thus a shark’s image won’t change in the main stream media. Granted, some outlets start to draw a different picture but as long as John Smith believes that sharks are the embodiment of destruction a change will not occur. But a change must occur. 

The slaughtering of sharks is likely the biggest ecological time bomb of our time. And this bomb needs to be defused. So one way to change people’s minds when it comes to sharks is to address their fear from them. Are we truly afraid of the animal or is it rather the environment where we encounter it? Likely both, but there is something else; we fear what we can’t control or don’t understand. It makes a big difference if we go into a situation with a shark knowing what to look for, what to expect and being able to predict the likely outcome than “lose our heads” because we have no idea what is going to happen should the animal come closer. The latter is the situation for most people, not knowing what happens, but that must not be so. We all can learn to read an animal or a situation and understand our doing with one. Of course, there is the group of people who are convinced that we can’t communicate with animals, or at least not with those that supposedly are as primitive as sharks. But, why shouldn’t we be able to understand the body language of sharks? Because it does not have facial muscle as we do? Possess facial muscles or not isn’t a necessity to get an idea what is going on. The gait of a person, the direction he or she takes towards another person etc. tells us something about the intention of the person, independently of the person’s facial muscles. We can predict the approaching person’s interest. It is not much different with sharks. An approach of a shark is influenced by its curiosity, hesitation, dominance etc. and it is up to us to understand these motivations and how they express themselves. 

Sharks are not these mindless instinct-driven machines that do not differ between us, prey or another shark. What they are starts to materialize in small steps. But although we are getting more educated when it comes to these animals, their mental states are still rather blank slates. We have to let them grow on us and to do so, we have to spend as much time as possible among them. And there is the crux of the matter: if one is afraid of sharks one will not go the extra time to better understand them. That only happens if one loves an animal. But, a loving person already accepts the motivation in sharks, accept their personalities etc. not so the person who is afraid of them. So all we can do is hope that a smarter generation finds a way to reverse the destruction we caused.

BTW: The fatality rate of sharks lays between 5 and 10 people per year, whereas hippos kill close to 3000 people each year. Have you lately seen a headline where a hippo was involved?

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