Jaws beach scene

Great White Shark Myth

FROM OUR ARCHIVE

More so than any other creature, sharks have the ability to inspire hysteria and obsession on a grand scale. Shark Trust founder, author and photographer Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch gives his theories on why sharks affect our behaviour so much...

In 1987 I published my first shark book. In the introduction, there is an underwater photograph with a shark in the distance. The caption says: ‘A diver’s first view of a shark on a coral reef is usually as a powerful form moving in the background. The shark’s curiosity is short-lived and it goes on its way. The diver does not forget the shark as quickly as the shark forgets the diver.’

nurse sharkTop: People fleeing in the famous beach scene from the film Jaws; AboveE: Cuddles, the 'mysterious monster', was, in fact, a short-tail nurse shark

Why, at the height of this summer’s silly season, when a big shark swam past a pair of startled divers off the Cornish coast, was the story picked up by the media and the shark identified as a great white when it was so obviously a basking shark? 

A few days later, the media lost the plot all over again. An aquarium in Germany realised that people who didn’t know much about sharks couldn’t identify the inoffensive cartilaginous fellow in one of their tanks. Until now, no one had asked or cared. Embarrassed parents were far too busy fielding innocent questions about why the fish in the main tank were chasing each other in such tight circles and the water was getting cloudy. But something strange happened. The media picked up on the story and it became ‘The Case of the Unknown Shark’. The dozy creature was transformed, overnight, into a freak of nature. 

Despite the mounting hysteria, an informed glance at the photographs of Cuddles (for that is the shark’s given name) showed that it was but a variety of inert nurse shark: the short-tail nurse shark of tropical eastern Africa, to be more specific. Pseudoginglymostoma brevicaudatum, to be pretentious. But, no matter, the media had its silly season monster story and everyone was happy. Except those of us who care about sharks. Why sharks, for goodness’ sake? About a hundred people get bitten (mostly nipped or badly nipped) a year by them. A handful do, alas, die. Meanwhile, we kill millions of them every year. So much for the balance of nature.

I remember the first time I began to wonder if there was something a bit off-centre about some of the people obsessed with sharks and shark diving. It was 20 years ago. I had travelled to a shark research field station in the Bahamas to document the sharks and the scientists working on them. So far, so good. But then I was introduced to the ‘assistant’ who had been thrust upon me as my helper. In fact, the fellow had paid his own fare to get out there. 

He asked me what I was intending to photograph and I explained that my interest was primarily in photographing the sharks and secondarily in photographing the scientists studying the sharks. I had hardly finished what seemed to me an innocuous explanation when his eyes glazed over and he started ranting. He was known as the ‘Shark Wrangler’ and he was going to show me how he could control sharks, how he could swim with them, how he could ride a 3m tiger shark – and so on and on. 

655x442xlayered jaws optTop: a man-eating rubber shark leaps onto the boat in Jaws; Main photo: The supposedly dangerous bull shark is in reality a cautious animal

Clearly the only reason he was offering his services for free was because he thought it would be great publicity for himself. That was my first encounter with a modern archetype I call ‘shark hero’: the borderline character who uses sharks for his own promotion. Shark heroes come in various forms but they tend to boil down to the same basic complex: a desperate need to combat inner demons by projecting them onto sharks and then being seen to ‘conquer’ them. Shark heroes do not have the healthy respect for sharks that the rest of us have. Instead they are terrified of them but pretend to be fearless. 

I was talking to Simon Rogerson, former editor of this magazine, about why people like diving with sharks. He suggested it may have something to do with power – when you are in the presence of these magnificent beasts something magically rubs off to enhance your sense of significance, your self esteem. No doubt this is part of it. Most divers walk a little taller (and laugh a little louder) after a good shark dive. But I would suggest, for some people, much of the thrill is in being presented with the opposite: an intense sense of your insignificance and vulnerability. Perhaps the truth is an oscillating combination of the two extremes.

In my younger days, when I thought great theories were needed to answer great questions, I used to read Jung (nowadays I tend to think the only great question left is why we think there might be great questions). I liked Jung’s incomprehensible discussions about myths and the collective unconscious and archetypes. If I couldn’t understand it, then it had to be profound. Jung’s terminology sounded, for a diver at least, deep: ‘depth psychology’, ‘the depths of the psyche’ and so on. Suddenly the oceans became haunted: exteriorised metaphors for the collective unconscious awaiting the hero’s transformative journey. Lurking sharks, supremely and ruthlessly at home in a world where we are clumsy intruders, represented the ‘shadow’; grinning dolphins represented ‘psychopomps’; dugongs were mermaids or projections of the Anima; depth implied treasure and treasure implied sunken galleons guarded, mayhap, by intact skeletons. See what I mean about sounding profound and/or incomprehensible? 

Now a deeper problem has surfaced. (see how mythical our language is?) We have encountered ‘the hero’. It is macho to dive with sharks. If you are macho, then there is always someone who just has to be more macho than you. It’s the nature of the game. And way out there, beyond the horizon of common sense, is ‘shark hero’, who performs stunts with sharks because he is desperate to be seen as heroic. Of course, true heroes are modest about their heroism. ‘Hello, I am a hero’ seems to have an internally contradictory ring to it. 

680x442xland beach optA bull shark swims close to shore - no one is threatened

So instead of yelling ‘Look at me – aren’t I brave!’, shark hero dresses up his stunts as something else – his unique capacity to understand sharks’ intentions just by how they swim, telepathic New Age animal bonding, even science. There are plenty of fame-seekers out there who are only too happy to be the latest ‘human face’ on a cable channel shark show (the term ‘documentary’ somehow seems inappropriate in this context). To show the animals behaving in natural circumstances is now an old-fashioned notion; instead, many producers find themselves in a race to satisfy the public’s mania for ever-greater sensationalism. 

I don’t read Jung these days. But the more time I have spent with people who dive with sharks, the more I have had to admit that he was on to something. Diving with big sharks is very humbling and very special. You are touched in unfathomable ways (there I go again). Alas, in the last decade, with shark populations crashing worldwide, this is rapidly becoming a vanishing possibility. 

The sort of shark photographs I am interested in taking now try to steer clear of the shark as mythical monster image. I like to portray sharks as magnificent and non-threatening creatures just doing their own thing. But am I recording things as they really are or denying a deeper, darker myth? 

Sometimes I like to think that I have been transformed a little by diving with sharks. But God forbid in any heroic sense.

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