Did we miss our chance to break down the fear culture built around awesome ocean creatures?
I’m sure most of us have by now seen ‘that shark video’, which has gone viral over the past week: drone footage showing an encounter with a respect- ably-sized white shark in Plettenberg Bay.
“That shark video”:
It really is awesome footage of a very calm but close interaction between a shark and surfers. I’m one of them, just out of frame, but in the water surfing when this footage was shot. He cruised past me, relaxed, which isn’t abnormal. Plett is a great white hotspot so they naturally congregate here and will be around during most surfs one has here during the winter ‘sharky season’. It becomes the norm to see them at some point on pretty much every surf around this time – some very close, some in the distance. I have personally had numerous encounters. We are aware of whom we share the ocean with, and most encounters are of the same nature as pictured by the drone footage. However, the media representations of this interaction paint a very different picture. The internet has been rife with headlines of the ‘chilling footage’ coupled with ominous music and Jaws references – not just nationally, but worldwide.
In nearly all articles we were ‘lucky to be alive after a terrifying life or death encounter we will never forget’. I’m most disappointed that this is still the main narrative for the species. This could have been a great opportunity to high- light a truly peaceful inter- action, which is much more the norm than an attack; a chance to work on reframing the identity and fear culture we have unfairly built around this species for years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating being ignorant to the fact they are here- sharks are apex predators and most definitely to be respected. I don’t deny that attacks can happen, or the sadness that would follow if it did, but it is a very rare occurrence.
Compare these statistics: in 2018 750,000 people were killed by mosquitos, 437,000 by other humans, 35,000 by dogs, 500 by elephants, 40 by jellyfish, and six by sharks. Yet the annual estimate for shark species killed by humans stands at 100million. Great white sharks are classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and face an array of anthropogenic threats such as fisheries bycatch and entanglement in gear. For the most part, great white sharks are relaxed and inquisitive creatures -an incredible species to witness.
So yes: be aware, be safe, and look out for each other in the water. But be sure to enjoy the ocean and the creatures that call it home, without being dragged down by a fear largely created by people who haven’t had the opportunity to experience these creatures first-hand.
When comparing man to that great white shark, I’m sure of which I’m more afraid of, and which of the two is most urgently in need of our protection.
By Caitlin Judge
Plett surfer, biologist and conservation communicator.
Follow this amazing talented young lady on her instagram @caitlinjudge_