GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by: Juliet Eilperin, author of “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks”
In my newsroom, one of my officemates like to engage in an annual countdown. It’s not a countdown to the Rapture, or to New Year’s Eve. It’s counting the days until Shark Week.
Admit it, you’ve watched it at least once. It hasn’t been the Discovery Channel’s longest-running hit for nothing. When it gets unbearably hot, and you’re either tired of the relatives you’re vacationing with or the job you still have to keep showing up at every morning, it’s time to turn on the television and check out scary shark tales.
Obsessing over sharks is not new. Phoenician pottery dating back to 3000 B.C. displays images of sharks, while a vase from 725 B.C., discovered at Ischia, Italy, shows a fish resembling a shark attacking a man. The ancient Greeks wrote and painted images of Ketea, a shark-like creature that the Greek poet Oppian described as a species that “rave for food with unceasing frenzy, being always hungered and never abating the gluttony of their terrible maw, for what food shall be sufficient to fill the void of their belly or enough to satisfy and give a respite to their insatiable jaws?”
The Greek philosopher Aristotle was interested in them too, providing what may be one of the earliest accounts of shark. After observing their mating rite, he wrote: “The cartilaginous fishes in copulation hang together after the fashion of dogs, the long tailed ones mounting the others, unless the later have a thick tail preventing this, when they will come together belly to belly.”
And the Islamic world provided its take on sharks in 1270, according to Matthew McDavitt, a lawyer based in Charlottesville, Va. who researches sharks in his spare time.
The Iraqi judge Zakariya Qazwini compiled an illustrated compendium titled, “The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence,” which was popular reading for hundreds of years. In it, Oazwini described how some residents lived in fear of the freshwater sharks that swam in the Tigris River. “This is a great evil in the sea,” the book reads. “It has teeth like spearheads. It is as long as a palm-tree. Its eyes are like fires of blood. It has an ugly shape; all other species run away from it.”
But sharks remained a largely remote concept for many people living far from the coasts.
It was a series of attacks off the New Jersey shore in 1916—which killed four people in 12 days—which first made Americans fear the water. Once Peter Benchley penned “Jaws” in 1974, and it became a summer blockbuster in 1975—many people became convinced there was a great white lurking off every shore.
The fact is there are sharks swimming off our shores, just not nearly as many of them as people think. Overfishing has caused several populations—including basking and oceanic whitetip sharks—to decline by 90 percent or more off America’s coasts in recent decades. And scientists recently calculated that 217 white sharks swim off the central California coast—hardly a robust number. At this point, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates roughly a third of all shark species face the threat of extinction.
This does not mean sharks aren’t foreboding, or don’t pose a threat to people. They are fascinating for a range of reasons, including the fact that they possess amazing predatory skills and have traversed the sea for nearly 400 million years. So turn on the TV. Just remember there’s more to sharks than their bite.
Juliet Eilperin is the author of “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks”