True tale or great white lie?

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The Independent Online
Newspapers call this time of year "the silly season". It is actually an abbreviation for "the month for silly stories about the seas and things that live in them". So it was no surprise to read about the extraordinary adventure of a British holidaymaker rescued by dolphins after being attacked by a great white shark.

Martin Richardson was swimming with bottlenose dolphins in the Red Sea off Egypt when he was attacked by a shark or sharks, depending which version you believe. It bit his left arm, but he punched it on the nose. It attacked twice more but then the dolphins, who had obviously been tuning in to Baywatch, came to his rescue. They circled round Richardson, slapping their tails and fins on the water to frighten the shark(s) away. Almost every newspaper attributed the villain's role to a great white shark, best known for the starring role in Jaws.

This story appeared only a few days after claims by a member of the World Conservation Union's shark specialist group that great white sharks, also known as white death, are thriving in the Mediterranean. According to Ian Fergusson, travel operators and regional governments are covering up the fact that they are as prolific as mackerel between Tunisia and Malta. He says that the Med variety probably need classifying as a separate species because they are genetically different from those elsewhere. Fergusson is quoted as saying that "there is nothing skilful about catching great whites". He adds: "They are very curious creatures and will come up to investigate a boat. So it is easy to lob a side of beef and a hook over to catch one."

Both yarns sound extremely fishy to me. I've never caught a great white, but I've been trying to put a trip together to pursue one, estimated by commercial boats at between 6,000lb and 8,000lb. The preparation has involved finding out a lot about them, and not very much ties up with the Med shark theories. For a start, great whites are cold- water sharks. Off Australia, they are only found on the southern coast rather than along the warmer Great Barrier Reef. In summer, the Med would be too warm for them.

They are also oceanic. They prefer swimming out to sea rather than splashing round in the shallows - except at party time. Their favourite food is seals, and when seals are "pupping", the sharks head for the dinner table. Surfers and divers are often attacked because they look like seals. No seals, no sharks. It's like expecting to find koalas in a cornfield.

Great white sharks are not the Sylvester Stallones of the fish world, though they usually get portrayed as brainless hunks. On the contrary: they are extremely cautious. Vic Sampson, a Londoner who has caught more great whites than anyone else alive, says they often circle a boat and swim off without taking a bait. Once, he poured blood in the water for two hours before a great white could be persuaded to take a bait. Does that sound like something that will swallow half a cow without thinking about the BSE consequences?

I'm sure Mr Fergusson's information about the Med being a veritable stock pond for carcharadon carcharias is impeccable. But the last great white shark expert that I spoke to hadn't actually ever seen one. According to one paper, the shark that attacked Richardson was 20ft long and weighed two tons, though I have no idea how the reporters found out its shirt size. However, I've seen a plaster cast of a 1,500lb tiddler. That had jaws big enough to swallow your head without the teeth scratching your ears.

My conclusion? The Med theory is tosh; the shark attack took place but it wasn't a great white. There's a newspaper saying: don't let the truth stand in the way of a good story. And great whites make great stories.

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