I was recently asked why I love sharks, and I was quite frankly stumped. It got me thinking: why do I love them, what is the love about and when did the love start? “I just do” is not a valid answer and it doesn’t enlighten the inquisitor or myself. There is a genesis for everything and so I am on an historical fact-finding mission to find out. I am hoping that by unravelling this deep relationship, which has inadvertently shaped the course of decision making in my life, I can get to know myself and sharks a little bit better.
As a young child growing up in Canada, I was fascinated with animals and particularly my father’s library of great books. While my brother and cousins sneaked peeks at the sexy books, I would lose myself in Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World with its full-page colour pictures of sharks. The colour blue and its myriad shades had always fascinated me. When I saw pictures of the ocean, I was drawn to it. In my box of crayons, the turquoise and teal crayons were always worn down to a tiny nub, they were, and remain my favourite. When I would see sharks suspended in those glorious colours with their large eyes staring back at me from the pages of those books, I just wanted to be there with them.
The blue shark, or as I called it as a child, ‘the funny face shark’ was a particular favourite as its large eye transfixed me and it long angular nose looked comical and sweet. I never seemed to associate it with danger.
Children, especially young boys go through definitive stages of attraction as they grow: they start with a fascination for trains, then pirates/dinosaurs, then sharks. I defy anyone to find a 6 – 12 year old boy who is not fascinated with them. They may not ‘love’ them but they are certainly curious and entranced by them and many of them do ‘love’ them and the lucky ones get to continue that love throughout their lifetime.
I am neither a boy, nor 6-12 years of age, but something happened to me all those years ago when I looked at that ‘funny face shark’ and it has stuck with me.
I loved the look of sharks. The various shapes of their streamlined bodies, the white soft looking lip which revealed teeth when open, the eyes which seemed faintly cat-like in some and faintly mammalian in others…they lived where I wanted to – in the myriad shades of blue. I so wanted to be there with them that I would have regular dreams of sharks as a child. I often dreamed I was on a cement jetty at night with stairs leading straight down into a milky blue sea which was lit from below and in the light I could see the shadows of sharks swimming in circles. They were calling me, not with words, but with enticement and we both could feel it. I would enter the water but never really see them, just smudgy black shadows passing before, under and above me in the milky blue. I never felt afraid in these dreams, I just felt longing. A yearning to really see them, a deep wanting to be able to stay and live there the way they did.
My parents acknowledged this love of nature I had and encouraged it with subscriptions to National Geographic and other kid friendly versions of wildlife books and magazines. While I loved all animals, the ocean residents, particularly the sharks, were and remain my favourites.
Looking back, I think it may have something to do with forbidden space and not belonging there. I don’t have gills and can’t live where they do, but I wanted to very much and still do. It is a world that is somewhat forbidden to me and therefore is very appealing. It was also very far from where I lived in Canada. Although as I grew up I realised a short 3-hour flight would have me smack dab in the middle of shark heaven, as a child it seemed like a completely different planet and one that I would never experience.
My dear late father, Robert Francis Laight, was an enthusiastic wildlife lover. We would watch endless hours of wildlife TV and sharks in particular were a bonding event. It was something we loved to do together and my love for him and sharks are very much entangled. And although my love of sharks took me away from him to the other side of the planet, something which I believe hurt and saddened him deeply, I also believe he would be very proud to see me finally pursuing this love on a professional level.
This love, and I do not use the word lightly or with any irreverence, it is a love, has also been fostered out of a love for the misunderstood. I have always had a deep fondness for large ferocious-looking creatures and would display deep distress at smaller creatures maligning or killing it. The song Puff the Magic Dragon still wounds me to the core. The thought of a big, scary, lonely dragon abandoned and alone; that is how I see sharks, an ancient species being left behind. I do not like judging a book by its cover and I have always resented the idea of large teeth or claws being a sign that the creature wants to drag you out of your bed at night and eat you. It has a right to exist just like any other small furry creature and should be afforded the same respect. This awareness was fostered at an early age and stories like the Selfish Giant, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Bears…all with a large, misunderstood antagonist would see me rooting for the large, misunderstood antagonist. I felt that I was the only one who could see that the Selfish Giant was a good but lonely and misunderstood man, that the Giant was right to be angry at Jack for trespassing on his property and that The Three Little Bears were right for being angry at the little girl for breaking and entering and damaging their property. The children in these stories were all in the wrong and my sense of injustice would get riled up. When I saw people killing sharks on TV, I would feel rage at people taking living beings out of a world that didn’t belong to them. They were trespassing and killing. I felt a sense of moral outrage – they were slaying my giants.
The many lakes and rivers near my home were my summer playground. They were where I learnt to swim, cliff jump, climb under waterfalls and fall in love with water. They were also where I encountered fishing first hand. My family are all avid fishers and I grew up watching trout being pulled from many waterways. Fish has never been a food I have enjoyed and I believe it comes from first hand experience of seeing them caught and killed. I am sure if I had witnessed every piece of meat I have ever eaten killed before me I would feel the same about meat, but my meat killing has been sanitised and kept from view.
Watching fish squirm and wriggle in pain on the end of hook and then gutted while still alive was not a pleasant sight to see. The blood and the silence were very disconcerting for me. Seeing a living thing endure a painful death in complete silence was unnerving. I wished it could scream so people would be shocked and stop hurting it. But it didn’t it just thrashed about on the rocks making a slippery thudding sound and its blank eye, so different from when it is seen underwater full of life, would stare ahead, seeing nothing but its own demise as its mouth gaped and open and closed and its gills ran red with blood.
My father then began keeping the fish alive in a bucket of water or in the kitchen sink to avoid my distress at seeing him kill the fish. He eventually succumbed to my pleads and would often release the fish back into the river. In hindsight, I think it was a relief for both of us. Although my parents enjoyed fishing to very late in life with day fishing trips in Florida and the Bahamas, I do believe they lost the taste for it too. A silent death is still a death and does not diminish the suffering of the fish just because we can’t hear its death rattle.
As we have seen recently, the death of sharks is widespread and barbaric. Sharks are having their fins removed from their bodies while they are still alive and then thrown overboard to bleed to death and drown. All of this is completed in horrific silence with just the sound and sight of the shark’s nictitating eyelid flickering up and down in pain and suffering. Silence does not negate or obviate pain; it just cushions us from its reality.
Is this being allowed to happen because we don’t hear it? What other factors are at work here to allow for such barbaric suffering of our oldest Earth companions?
The fear and mistrust of an animal that is capable of killing us is high on the chart. We have been so effectively cordoned off from our natural home that we have become desensitised to the very small prospect of an animal killings us. This is an inherent problem in the entanglement of humans and animals. Encased in our boxes where we glance out of glass safe in our beds, we have forgotten that humans have existed outside with animals for millennia, and we are still here, miraculously, they haven’t managed to kill all 8 billion of us off yet.
This, I believe, is what was at the heart of the Western Australia shark cull, or Shark Threat Mitigation Program as it is called. Ocean users are aware that there are sharks in the water and that the chance of encountering one is minute, yet we still choose to use the oceans for our recreation. It is a chance we are willing to take. Sharks on the other hand, have no other option. There is no chance for them to take, it is their only home and yet their very existence is a game of chance against alien invaders. They are being wiped out to ensure a safer place for occasional recreational visitors. Seen in this context, the idea is completely preposterous. Of course, there are other factors at work such as the globalised shark fishing industry, the reliance on sharks as commodity and status symbol and probability neglect but, overall, the needs of the individual human recreational users of the oceans (less than 20 of whom are killed per year by sharks) are being placed above the needs of over 100,000,000 sharks per year who are being killed in our name. This is happening because human beings seem to be enraged by the thought of an animal having the ability to kill us. It is as if our new-found technological capabilities have rendered it impossible for us to fathom that a mere animal could get the better of us. What they really should be flabbergasted by is that humans have managed to wipe out a species that pre-dates us by 350,000,000 million years and doesn’t even share the same habitat with us.
Governments and policy makers seem able to sleep better at night if any threat of unmanageable wildlife is suitably managed and any thought of litigation is swiftly put to bed. This begs the question, does the ability of an animal to kill us allow for us to kill them in record numbers amounting to nothing less than genocide?