August is traditionally the silly season in newspapers. It is a time of corn circles and UFOs, when Loch Ness Monster sightings are taken seriously, when people dressed as Batman try to fly 100 yards off Bognor Pier - and when sharks attack bathers on South Coast beaches.
Any day now, the Brighton Evening Argus or the Southern Evening Echo will carry a terrifying account of a brave mum pulling her toddler from the jaws of a 10ft man-eater. The story will tell how the monster turned on her and chased her up the beach, like those killer whales in that unforgettable sequence from The Trials of Life.
The daily tabloids will find a topless angle and double the shark's length. Radio stations will carry an interview with the heroic mother, preferably in tears. By the time television gets hold of the yarn (shots of empty sea spliced in with footage from Jaws), the shark will be only marginally shorter than Southend Pier. And that's where I come in.
One of my lesser claims to fame is as the author of perhaps the worst publication ever on shark fishing, Catch More Shark (Wolfe Publishing, 35p). Composed when I had only caught about 10 myself, this ill-
produced booklet is fortunately long out of print. Antiquarian booksellers occasionally have a copy, but I buy any that come on to the market rather like someone caught in a massage parlour raid who tries to buy all copies of the local paper in the week of the court case.
The book has many low points, but the most embarrassing is the hand-drawn pictures. Bearing little resemblance to anything with fins, these unusual sharks appear to be smirking, as if they've dined well on a South Coast bathing beauty. My friend Chris the Stuffer says that, whenever he's miserable, he takes out Catch More Shark, looks at the pictures, and his melancholy vanishes.
For all its faults, the book did me one small favour. It got me on to an exclusive list, apparently privy only to major radio and television stations, as a 'shark expert'. For some years afterwards, I was wheeled out to comment on everything from shark deterrents to fin soup. Most common, though, was the call for an expert to identify a rogue monster that had developed a taste for human flesh cooked in Ambre Solaire. If I'm honest, I probably wasn't very good viewing. Far from regaling horrified audiences with more grisly tales of fingers, limbs and even ships' crews found inside shark stomachs, I had to point out that there weren't actually any man-eaters around our coast.
The most likely culprit for scaring bathers, especially along the South Coast, is the thresher shark. It has a huge scythe-like tail, about the same length as the rest of its body, which it uses to herd and stun its prey, most commonly shoals of mackerel. Threshers will come into very shallow water, but they have tiny mouths and the book Sportfishing for Sharks classifies them as 'entirely harmless to man'. We used to catch lots of threshers off the Isle of Wight, along with a more
formidable-looking shark, the porbeagle. Porbeagles have no recorded attacks against their name.
The most common British shark, and the least frightening, is the one you see hanging sadly on Cornish quaysides. The blue shark doesn't grow very big around our coast. It is under threat from trawlers, because it seems the French have suddenly become partial to its steaks.
Occasionally, you see a shark of more than 20 feet, swimming in shallow water that looks terrifying. But it is merely a basking shark, which would only give you a nasty suck. Years ago, a few mako sharks were caught. These have a bad reputation and have attacked people in Australia. But I don't think one has been caught around our coast for at least 20 years.
The shark that everyone fears, of course, is the great white. It is associated with Australian and Californian beaches, and is without doubt the most frightening thing in the sea. It has never been sighted in British waters - yet. I and a small group of big-game anglers will be trying to catch one around our coast later this summer. No doubt you would like to know where, so you can plan your holidays. Sorry, you'll just have to wait for the television interviews.Reuse content