Deep below the depths of the ocean, strange things lie. Hidden in the dark within sea caves, your fears reside.
– Folklore Thursday
After Darwin and the 19th century, monsters changed from the mythological creatures they were into real species who have been demonised for simply trying to stay alive. They knock us off the top of the food chain, they hunt us as prey and this terrifies us.
Where once we feared sea serpents, today we fear reality. Or at least, the version of reality we have spun for ourselves.
Jaws was a watershed moment for the sharks, taking them from the shadows to centre stage, from un-thought-about to villain. Jaws portrayed a ruthless maneater who killed for cruelty. This idea of the vengeful shark infiltrates our language. We talk of seas infested with sharks, sharks menacing our coast lines, sharks invading our beaches…
Sharks merge into the large fish category when it comes to looking at myth and legend and older texts so it’s not always clear to see how literature has reflected this creature. And whilst there are few clearcut examples of literary sharks, those that do exist don’t seem to expand our understanding of the species, often being cast as monsters and more recently, in animated films for example, as cute and cuddly. The reality being somewhere in between.
Humans are far more of a threat to the shark than they are to us. We kill millions every year to eat them, for their fins, for their teeth or simply because of our fear. When we come face to face with this apex predator, our sense of self and our place in the world is challenged and we react with fear and we lash out.
Between 1986 and 2000 in the northwest Atlantic ocean, the hammerhead shark population fell by 89%, the great whites fell by 78% and for tiger sharks there was a 65% decline. In contrast, about 5 people a year, worldwide, are killed by sharks. Far more people die from bee stings or lightening strikes than from sharks.
Sharks are not a threat to human life but they threaten our importance, reminding us how small and vulnerable we really are. They become a scapegoat for our fear of the unknown seas. Where once we drew mythological monsters on our maps as a symbol of the uncharted and dangerous waters, today we have the shark. A painful reminder of just how little we know about life in the deep.
But communities who live by or on the oceans tend to have a more nuanced view of sharks. In some cultures, for example, the shark is revered, respected for its strength and hunting prowess. In Hawaiian culture the shark is seen as a protector or a brave warrior and deceased family members are thought to be transformed into guardian sharks. Sharks can also be a boom for the tourist industry. A single living shark is allegedly worth $50,000 a year in tourist revenue according to a report from Fiji.
These magnificent and complex creatures are terribly misunderstood. If we can step outside our humancentric way of thinking and seeing, we can appreciate how wonderful sharks are, how fantastic they are at being sharks and we can gaze upon them with respect.