Shark School: Learning to Love the Oceanís Top Predator
By Sandro Contenta

Sharks are the ocean’s apex predators. And attacks on humans are increasing as we populate coastlines and encroach on their domain. Still, as Toronto Star feature writer Sandro Contenta points out in his new Star Dispatches ebook, Shark School: Learning to Love the Ocean’s Top Predator, the creature is hardly the murderous monster portrayed in the blockbuster movie Jaws. Find out what he learned by going to a shark school in the Bahamas and talking to experts about the much-maligned creature

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Shark School: Learning to Love the Oceanís Top Predator

It isn’t the best of days to be out at sea. It rains off and on, and the boat does not have a top. After a while I feel queasy and wonder if only the high swells are to blame. The whole point of the trip is unsettling: I am in the Bahamas to swim with sharks.

We anchor in a channel where choppy waters splash against reef islands. The boat bobs like a cork as I slowly prepare my snorkeling gear. Maybe my complexion is a little pale.

“You are afraid?” asks a young woman with a German accent, zipping up her wetsuit for the shark swim.

“Just normal afraid,” I say.

“Respect,” she corrects me, nodding her approval.

Yes, I have respect coming out my ears.

Any schoolchild knows that sharks are the ocean’s apex predators. Not all sharks, mind you. There are more than 500 species of them, and the smallest are little more than 20 centimetres long, less than the average shoe size of adults.

There is also nothing to fear from the very biggest ones. Whale and basking sharks, the two biggest fish in the sea, are slow-moving filter feeders, opening big mouths to mainly suck in plankton. One day, off the coast of Kenya, I swam briefly with a whale shark the length of a bus. It was a serene and wondrous experience, the kind that stays forever.

The super-predator label belongs to sharks like the white, tiger and bull — those often identified in attacks on people. You’ve got to wonder how good people are at distinguishing one shark from another, especially when one has got hold of their leg. Still, there’s no way around the fact that people are attacked by sharks every year — a number that has increased almost every decade since 1900.

From 2004 to 2013, 689 attacks were reported in oceans, seas and rivers, including 72 last year, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. These attacks are listed as unprovoked, and more than half occurred in U.S. waters. Another 28 attacks were categorized as provoked, defined as incidents that “usually occur when humans initiate physical contact.” These people, plainly put, were bugging the shark.

“What I can say unequivocally, without worrying about being wrong, is that we’re going to have more shark attacks,” says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File. The correlation is clear: as the number of people living along coastlines and enjoying water activities grows, so do the number of attacks. We’re increasingly encroaching on the shark’s domain. (There have been no reported unprovoked attacks in Canadian waters since at least 1972.)

“Attack” is of course a loaded word. For one thing, even a bump that causes no injury is considered an attack. There is also no evidence that sharks associate humans with food, or that they consider us threats to their apex status.

There are only three recorded incidents of a single shark involved in multiple attacks. The first and most notorious was in 1916, when four people were killed along the New Jersey coastline and a fifth was mauled. Newspaper reports at the time said a white shark was eventually caught with the remains of two victims in its stomach. The incident inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws, the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster movie of the same name. The film is widely accused of exaggerating fears and desensitizing people to the deaths of tens of millions of sharks each year, mainly through shark finning and getting caught in fishing gear.

It wasn’t until three years ago that the other incidents occurred: two white tip sharks are believed responsible for multiple bites in separate attacks in the Red Sea.

“I would say the majority of shark attacks are mistakes,” Burgess says. He notes that swimmers, surfers and snorkellers often connect with sharks in areas where breaking surf and undertow make visibility for sharks poor.

“They don’t say, ‘Aha! A human! That’s an eight on the flavor scale,” he continues. Sharks are instead looking for size and behavior that together might spell lunch. “A shark, like any good predator, will go after the weak and the infirm, and humans fall into that category almost automatically because humans are clumsy in water.

“Sharks have to make a living while we’re out there playing. They make a quick decision and grab at a splash which they think is fish and sometimes in the middle of that splash is a foot or a hand. And for most of these sharks that are no more than two metres in length, biting an animal that is clearly the same size or bigger comes as a surprise.

“They may also discover when that foot or hand is in their mouth that it doesn’t taste like a fish and so they let go and they’re gone. We call these hit-and-run attacks because the animal doesn’t come back; it’s just a quick grab and let go. Jaws theme music does not play in the background and the animal does not circle around and come back to attack again.”

Here’s another fact: 10 people were killed last year by sharks — 63 in the past decade.