Last weekend, my Twitter feed filled with yet more sad news from the States. Thankfully, Mr Trump was not involved this time, but a great young conservationist and activist was.
Rob Stewart, the documentary filmmaker behind Sharkwater, was reported missing during a scuba dive at the end of last week. A huge manhunt went underway off the coast of Florida but on Saturday (UK) the sad news came.
Rob Stewart’s death will no doubt have caused many to go back and watch Sharkwater. I’d never seen the documentary but I’ve had many conversations on how important sharks are, and how they need protecting just as much as dolphins or whales or turtles do. They are vital to our marine ecosystems and even, dare I say it, to life itself.
So, on Sunday, I watched Sharkwater. Just like The Cove, just like Blackfish, this documentary brought me to tears at the blatant disregard we have for lives aside from our own. But more than this, Sharkfish made me incredibly angry and frustrated.
The fear of sharks
When someone says the word ‘shark’, I guarantee that the majority of people will
immediately think of danger – attacks from the deep. They’ll conjure images from Jaws, think of sharp teeth and beaches unsafe for surfers or swimmers.
I, myself, have always been scared of sharks – especially hammerheads. There was just something about them that I really didn’t feel comfortable with… but I would never condone their suffering through the cruel practices which Sharkwater revealed.
The truth about sharks
Sharks have been on our planet for around 400 million years. Rob Stewart describes them in Sharkfish as the ‘ultimate predator’ (which explains why they’ve been around so long). They rule the marine ecosystem.
He also revealed how shy they are – particularly hammerhead sharks. Hammerheads are in actual fact, shy, fairly small sharks and considered harmless to humans. My fear started subsiding.
Sharks are also highly sensitive and able to feel an electromagnetic pulse. When diving to film them, Rob Stewart had to ensure his heartbeat was calm in order not to scare them away. They could feel his heartbeat – even when he was nowhere near them.
After a series of dives, Rob filmed himself holding and stroking sharks, as I’ve only seen humans do with dolphins.
These fish have been portrayed as terrors of our seas so that many of us are terrified of them – despite knowing hardly anything about them.
Yes, shark attacks do happen, and yes they are horrific when they do.
But remember, when we’re in the sea, we’re in their world.
In 2015, the Florida Museum worked with the University of Florida to create a list which compared the relative risk of shark attacks to other risks. In terms of animal comparisons, you are 2 times more likely to be killed by an alligator or by a bear, and in a wider context, you are 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning.
In Sharkwater, they said that an elephant attack was more common than a shark attack…
Given the choice, sharks would actually rather swim away from us than to us (which goes back to how shy they are). It’s said that sharks often mistake humans for other animals- apparently noisy movements and frantic paddling make us appear similar in behaviour to a weak seal. The noise highlights our vulnerability and makes them think we’re prey.
Sharkwater helped me learn more about sharks and, although I’ll never be totally fearless when it comes to some of them, I am happy to say that I’ve got over most of that fear. I’ve even come to quite like hammerheads now I know more about them…What I found disconcerting (out of ignorance), I now find quite endearing.
But whether we’re scared of sharks or not, we cannot condone horrific industries like shark-finning.
Finning is the inhumane practice of hacking off a shark’s fins and throwing it’s still living body back into the sea. The sharks either starve to death, are eaten alive by other fish, or drown (if they are not in constant movement their gills cannot extract oxygen from the water).
Now you’ll understand my anger. Sharks are being driven to the brink of extinction.
So where are the fins ending up?
Often in ‘delicacies’ like shark fin soup, or in medicinal substances which some cultures believe will make them strong. These cultures think that a shark has less tendency to get ill than other animals so their ‘magic’ immunity will pass to whoever consumes the shark (in actual fact, sharks get cancer and many many other diseases). The latter is (obviously) scientifically untrue, and the former is a status symbol rather than having a particular palette for shark – a fin is tasteless and animal stocks and other meat is often added for flavour…
Wildlife Aid estimate that around 100 million sharks are killed every year. Shark numbers are dwindling and falling at a dramatic rate. So, a species that has been on our planet for hundreds of millions of years, is in threat – all because of our selfish greed.
What’s even more worrying, is how hard it is to get people to sympathise with the plight of sharks, thanks to the terrifying reputation we’ve created for them.
Sharkwater did an amazing thing in not only highlighting the truth about sharks, and how amazing they really are as a species, but it also revealed the true horror of the shark finning industry. Rob Stewart joined ranks with Sea Shepherd as they tried to monitor shark finning boats, and fishermen using long-lining techniques, which unnecessarily kills sharks, turtles and other species along with the intended fish. They revealed just how disgustingly lucrative the shark finning industry is, how governments can get caught up in the corruptive mess of money, power and the demise of a whole species, and why the problem is so much bigger than we thought.
When Rob Stewart was announced dead last weekend, the world lost a great conservationist and a great activist for marine life – most notably sharks. We need to look after our planet, and respect all the living things which live on it, especially when they’ve been here longer than we have, and regardless of how scary we think they are (they’re not actually that scary…)
I feel confident that other people will continue Rob’s work, and I really hope we can make a difference. As Paul Watson, from Sea Shepherd, said in Sharkwater, it only takes a few people to make a big change.
If you haven’t watched Sharkwater yet, please, please do (especially if you’re scared of sharks!!) Find out more here.
If you would like to find out more about shark finning, and ways to help, I’d recommend these places as a starting point: