I've been threatening all week to write about sharks and the time has finally come. I look forward to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel every year, and it seems like every year I'm a little bit less in love with it.
You see, I am a shark freak. Obsessed with them. Have been for as long as I can remember.
From the time I was a little girl, I felt a magnetic pull to the ocean. I grew up in a world where people were often terrified of going in the water because of the Jaws franchise, but I was never afraid of it. I knew that the shark in the movie wasn't real, I knew that sharks didn't hunt humans and carry grudges, and I knew that the odds of ever being bit by a shark were minute.
As I grew older, my love of these strange animals grew and grew as well. When I was in junior high, I was selected to work at the school's science museum, which incidentally was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I wish that schools could see the value of programs like that one in today's world.
Anyhow, the year that I was a curator, we selected the theme of oceans. Groups of elementary kids would come to see the museum and our assortment of animals. We had several snakes, an iguana, a freshwater aquarium and a salt water aquarium. We had tarantulas and scorpions too. We gave a presentation to each group on the topic we had selected, and it shouldn't come as a surprise at this point that my area of specialty was sharks. I had to dig up an old article on the museum for you all.
I learned everything I could about them, I read every book I could get my hands on. I dreamed of someday being a marine biologist, more specifically an icthyologist - which is a scientist that focuses on fish. That dream was interrupted by no one other than me, when I decided to go a different direction with my major. I was in public policy and management with a minor in biothics. Not exactly where you go to learn about sharks.
Even still, I managed to convince my advisor to let me write my thesis about sharks. I chose the topic of overfishing of sharks in international waters, and the difficulty in enforcing treaties in a part of the world where no one nation's laws govern.
To this day, I am still amused that I pulled off writing about sharks in a public policy major.
Though I live over a thousand miles from the ocean these days, it still calls me. When we go back to California now, I could just sit on the beach indefinitely. I know that I shortchanged myself when I let my head overrule my heart, when I decided to focus on law instead of the water.
But I digress.
We're here to talk about sharks. Since Shark Week is concerned more with making sharks fly and scaring people about gigantic prehistoric sharks that might still exist, I thought I would tell you some cool facts about these amazing creatures that I have loved for all my life.
There are roughly 400 species of sharks , though an exact number is as elusive as the sharks themselves. This number has risen fairly significantly in the last few decades as more and more species are discovered. The ocean is one of the most unexplored areas of the world, and it's highly likely that there are many more in there we still don't know about.
One of the biggest draws this year on Shark Week has been the special about whether Megalodon is still alive. The evidence was presented in a slanted way, and one of the experts on the show said immediately after it aired that he thinks it is extinct, which didn't lend a whole lot of credibility to the show. The ocean is deep and vast. I suppose it's possible that Megalodon is still around, though I tend to doubt it. It's more likely that there are other large species of sharks that humans haven't encountered and named yet. What they did with the show, though, has stirred much controversy because all it has effectively done is made people afraid to go back in the water again over a documentary that many are outright calling a mockumentary.
Making more people afraid of the ocean for no legitimate reason is not a good thing. Instead of helping conservation efforts, there's an argument to be made that they are making the situation worse.
Shark populations around the world are in decline, and quite often their only predator is us - humans. Some species facing extinction, which derives from the fact that over 100 million sharks are killed each year. They are sought after primarily for shark fin soup, a delicacy in some parts of the world. As the fins are the only part used, they are cut off at sea and the rest of the animal is tossed overboard, left to die. It's one of the most violent hunting or fishing practices that occurs in the world, akin to hunting elephants for their tusks or tigers for their pelts.
Why should we care? Easy. They are the apex predator. Without them around, there is nothing to keep the rest of the food chain in check. Larger mammals that would normally be hunted and eaten decay in the ocean, disrupting the carbon cycle. Some animals on the food chain can rapidly overpopulate without their predator, and it happens quickly because the lower food chain animals have shorter life spans and reproduce faster.
We should also care because sharks may hold the key to the treatment of many diseases that we suffer from here on land. Like the rainforests, they hold precious pieces of information within them, and if we destroy them, we're only hurting ourselves.
How about some random shark facts?
- Bull sharks can swim upstream and survive in freshwater.
- All shark eggs are fertilized internally, which is different than bony fish.
- Some species lay those fertilized eggs, others give live birth.
- Some species that give live birth experience cannibalism in utero.
- Sharks babies are on their own from the moment of birth.
- If great white sharks stop swimming, they drown.
- Sharks don't sleep like we do, they can't. They go into less-aware states, shutting off parts of their brain at a time.
- Some species can live as long as 100 years.
- Shark skeletons are made entirely of cartilage, which is why we only have Megalodon's teeth - even the jaws have to be reconstructed based on size estimates.
- Some sharks grow to less than a foot, the whale shark averages over 30 feet long.
- Before manufactured sandpaper existed, shark skin was used.
- Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, spent the rest of his career trying to undo the damage that was done from the book and movie, becoming a shark conservationist. He said that if he had understood more about them, he never would have portrayed them as the vicious killers he did.
- Since Jaws, over 50 movies have been released portraying sharks as villains. The only popular movie where they aren't depicted as ruthless killers is Finding Nemo - where sharks go to support groups to avoid eating other fish.
- These movies have fed into an irrational fear that people have of sharks. In the entire world, there are an average of 100 attacks a year, and of those 5-10 will die. You are far more likely to drown in the ocean or be killed by a bee than be killed by a shark.
- I love the statistics like this one: In 2006, 43,000 people in the United States were hurt by toilets. 13 were hurt by sharks.
Instead of being afraid of these creatures, we should be fighting for them. These misunderstood, demonized animals need our help, and we're the only ones that can save them.
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