The Great White Hope

In Defence of the Killer Down Under

Peter Benchley,Author
Wednesday 08 November 2000 01:00 GMT

For years after the movie of Jaws exploded into the public consciousness, I was asked why I thought it had had such an impact. I had no answer beyond the obvious: people have always been terrified of sharks, of deep water and of the unknown, and this story touched all those nerves. Then, a few years ago, I came across the words of a Harvard sociobiologist, Edward O Wilson. "We're not just afraid of predators," he wrote, "we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters."

For years after the movie of Jaws exploded into the public consciousness, I was asked why I thought it had had such an impact. I had no answer beyond the obvious: people have always been terrified of sharks, of deep water and of the unknown, and this story touched all those nerves. Then, a few years ago, I came across the words of a Harvard sociobiologist, Edward O Wilson. "We're not just afraid of predators," he wrote, "we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters."

Yet despite the vast leaps of knowledge since Jaws was published in 1974, no one - not scientists, fishermen, or divers - yet knows for certain many basic things about them. How big can they can be? (How long, how broad, how heavy?) How many years can they can live? How many of them are there? When and where do they mate? How many young can they carry? Where do they spend their time? And what, specifically, impels one great white to attack, kill and consume a human being while another will spit out the same hapless sort of victim?

One thing, I do know: the knowledge we have accumulated about great whites in the past 25 years has convinced me that I couldn't possibly write Jaws today... not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthropophagous (ie they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: the shark mistakes the human for its normal prey.

Back then, we thought that once a great white scented blood, it launched a feeding frenzy that inevitably led to death. Now we know that nearly three-quarters of all bite victims survive, perhaps because the shark recognises that it has made a mistake and doesn't return for a second bite.

Back then, we believed that great whites attacked boats. Now we know that their sensory systems detect movement, sound, and electrical fields (such as those caused by metal and motors) in water, and when they approach a boat, they're merely coming to investigate. (Granted, investigation by a 3,000lb animal can wreak havoc.) Finally, back then, it was OK to demonise an animal, especially a shark, because man had done so since time began, and sharks appeared to be infinite in number.

No longer. Today - despite this week's lurid reports of the attack off the Australian coast, which left a 49-year-old father of three, Ken Crew, dead, and another man badly wounded - we know that these exquisite creatures of evolution are not villains. Instead, they are victims in danger of - if not extinction quite yet, then serious, perhaps even catastrophic, decline.

Much of the evidence is anecdotal: fishermen and naturalists are seeing fewer great whites, and in most places those they are seeing are younger and smaller. Scientists estimate that, worldwide, populations of some species of sharks have dropped by 80 per cent. Though precise numbers of white sharks aren't known, there is a growing consensus that they are not reproducing at a rate sufficient to maintain the population. Scarce by nature and growing scarcer thanks to contact with man, it seems that great whites are, for all their grace and power and manifest menace, remarkably fragile creatures.

And until recently there has been no public outcry to Save the Shark, as there has been for whales and dolphins. One problem, of course, is that unlike whales and dolphins, sharks aren't cute, they don't nurse their young, they don't appear to "talk" to one another - and consequently they're hard to anthropomorphise. More practically, unlike whales and dolphins, which are mammals, sharks don't breathe air, so they don't surface at regular intervals and thus are not so easy to track and count.

We do know that they're primarily coastal - so they have contact with humans, and sometimes humans lose - but we don't know much about their travel and migration patterns. Indeed, in my experience the best way to find one is to go where they're not supposed to be: a 10-footer and I had a chance meeting underwater years ago in the Bahamas, a place in which, at the time, great whites were unheard of. The shark was as shocked to see me as I was to see it. It stopped dead in the water, braking with its two pectoral fins, voided its bowels, and fled. (My reaction? Well... none of your business.)

And, of course, we know, too, that great white sharks have a documented record of killing human beings. (Rarely though: only 74 times in the past 100 years, according to the International Shark Attack File.) One man who knows more than most about white shark attacks, indeed a uniquely qualified expert, is Rodney Fox. In 1963, Rodney, a resident of the South Australian resort town of Glenelg, was attacked while spear-fishing. He was snorkelling, with a dead fish dangling from a float nearby. The shark struck, retreated, then struck again.

"I looked down," Rodney said when he told me the story years ago, "and saw that great big jaw rising at me through a cloud of my own blood, and I knew I was in trouble." Trouble, indeed. Only a series of amazingly lucky breaks - including the fact that the strands of his neoprene wet suit held his guts in - saved his life. He spent weeks in hospital and months in recovery, sewn together, like a quilt, with 462 stitches.

Rodney went on to win the South Australian team spear-fishing championships one more time, and ever since he has devoted his life to the study and protection of great white sharks. He has never held a grudge against the shark that chewed him up - "He was only doing what sharks do," he says - and he offers advice to any diver who finds himself in the water with a great white: "Make sure he knows you've seen him - great whites are ambushers, and once one knows he can't surprise you, he's probably not going to expend a lot of energy to get you. Move slowly to other divers or the boat."

Most people will, of course, never even come close to a great white - but as we learn more about these creatures from the experiences and research of those like Rodney Fox, so more people are coming to respect and appreciate them for what they are: beautiful, graceful, efficient and, above all, integral members of the ocean food chain. In large measure, this change is due to television and the abundance of films documenting not only the glories of sharks but also the dangers to them from long lines, nets and the odious practice of finning - slicing the fins off sharks to sell in Asian markets, then tossing the living animals overboard to die. Gradually, governments and individuals are learning that while a dead shark may bring 10 or 20 or even $50 to a single fisherman, a live shark can be worth thousands of dollars more in tourist revenue to a community. Divers will fly half-way around the world to see sharks.

And great whites are truly a sight to see: the largest predatory fish in the world, they have few natural enemies. And so, in balanced nature, there are not very many of them, and the number grows or shrinks depending on availability of food. They breed late in life and pup relatively few. Again, nobody knows exactly how many, but seven or eight seems to be a safe average. The youngsters appear alive, four or five feet long, weighing 50 or 60 pounds, fully armed and ready to rumble. Still, many don't survive the first year because other sharks , including great whites, eat them.

Of all the infuriating unknowns about great white sharks, none is more controversial than size. How big can they grow to be? Fishermen from Nova Scotia to South Australia, from Cape Town to Cape Cod, claim to have encountered 25-footers, 30-footers, even 36-footers. (Usually, the proof offered is that the beast was "bigger than the boat".) There have been reports of a 23-footer in the waters off Malta and a 21ft, 7,000-pounder off Cuba, but none has held up under scrutiny. The largest generally accepted catch - made by lasso, of all things - was a shark 19.5ft long. The largest great white shark ever caught on rod and reel weighed 2,664lb.

According to British biologist Ian Fergusson, chairman of the Shark Trust, no great white shark longer than 19.5ft has ever been validated, and in an e-mail widely circulated last year, he expressed irritation at "this stubborn reluctance by some elements of the media to accept the facts and even more of a reluctance to accept that a 16ft, 4,500lb white shark is BIG, very BIG, and should need no further exaggeration to impress even the most discerning of viewers when seen up close."

I can attest that underwater, cruising toward you out of the gloom with the confidence of the invincible, a 12ft great white looks like a locomotive with malice in mind.

At the moment, science accepts about 400 species of shark, but of those only four attack human beings with any frequency: bull sharks, tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips and great whites. And - as many have been quick to point out - the number of great white attacks worldwide has increased over the past few decades, according to the International Shark Attack File. This is at least partly because more people (divers, surfers, swimmers) are using the water. What is less well-known is that, at the same time, fatal attacks have actually decreased. Forty years ago, more than half of all attack victims died; today, largely thanks to improvements in communications and emergency medical care, more than four out of five victims survive.

And still the old adage is true: a swimmer has a better chance of being struck by lightning than killed by a shark. Around the world, many more people die every year from bee stings, snakebites, falling off ladders, or drowning in bathtubs than from shark attack... none of which, to be sure, detracts from the ghastly, visceral horror of being eaten by a huge fish, but all of which should give some comfort to the recreational swimmer.

In Australia, between 1876 and 1999, 52 attacks by great whites were recorded, and of them, 27 were fatal. In the Mediterranean since 1900, there have been 23 reliably recorded encounters with great whites, including one in 1909 in which the remains of two adults and a child were found inside a single 15ft female shark caught off the coast of Sicily. Curiously, there has been relatively little progress over the past 50 years in the development of shark repellents. Dyes have been tried; so have chemicals and bubble curtains. The current state-of-the-art uses electricity. So far, though, nothing has been proved to discourage a hungry great white in full attack.

But despite our fears, the signs are that we may at last, as Edward O Wilson said, be learning to love this particular monster. Around the world, fishermen are discovering that shark tourism - ecotourism, if you will - can be a better business than fishing itself. And ecotourism is also joining the vanguard of research: more and more these days, it is the naturalists and field operators, guides and dive masters who are contributing to the accumulation of practical knowledge about great whites. To cite just one example: until recently scientists thought that the scars that mar nearly every mature shark were acquired either from prey that fought back or from ritual biting by prospective mates. Now there is eyewitness testimony of aggressive social interaction between sharks and also of spectacular threat displays that take the place of major - potentially fatal - encounters with other white sharks.

So we are learning - bit by bit, anecdote by anecdote - more and more about these magnificent predators. We must hope that we're learning enough to save them before, through ignorance and inadvertence, we destroy them entirely. Great white sharks have survived, virtually unchanged, for millions of years. They are as highly evolved, as perfectly in tune with their environment as any living thing on the planet. For them to be driven to extinction by man, a relative newcomer, would be more than an ecological tragedy; it would be a moral travesty.

* ©National Geographic 2000

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