10 myths about sharks that you thought were true.
These toothy, ocean-faring beasties may be the stuff of nightmares and the merciless villains of epic Hollywood blockbusters – but are they really as dangerous, callous and cold as we all believe them to be?
The marine world covers 72% of our planet’s surface, creatures of all shapes, sizes and tooth-quantity swimming merrily on their way. Billions of us enter the world’s oceans and seas every year, interacting with this marine realm, yet sharks only claim – on average – six human lives a year. Perhaps it’s these perpetuated myths creating the scary stigma – time to separate fact from fiction.
1. Breaking down those stereotypical barriers
Myth: The biggest sharks will eat you alive.
Fact: The two largest species of shark, the Basking and Whale shark, both dine on microscopic plankton. They’re basically vegans who have the occasional cheat meal of tiny mackerel and would turn their nose up the moment you presented your fleshy limbs – no matter how well you seasoned them.
In fact, even the biggest meat-eaters, Great Whites, Hammerheads and Tigers, all would rather chow down on tuna, groupers and marine mammals than your bony body. These carnivorous sharks are used to chomping through large mouthfuls of fat and flesh – the moment their teeth strike bone they spit it out, ‘dude, that ain’t no tasty seal.’
2. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming
Myth: If a shark stops moving, it will die.
Fact: Most sharks don’t actually need to keep swimming to stay alive, most species rather using a process called ‘buccal pumping’ to flex their cheek muscles and physically filter water into their mouths and over the gills.
Many of the, should we say, more ferocious species – Great White and Mako in particular – are known as ‘obligate ram ventilators’, meaning that they do have to keep moving to stay alive. While not true for all sharks, this is one myth with a hint of truth.
3. Deadliest? More like cuddliest
Myth: Sharks are the most dangerous creatures in the ocean.
Fact: While Great Whites and Tigers do make it onto the infamous ‘Deadly 60’ list, they’re nowhere near the lofty, dangerous heights of the Box Jellyfish or Marine Cone Snails – the real ocean devils.
Two of the most venomous creatures on the planet, these are two ocean-lurkers that you won’t want to run into anytime soon. A sting from either is powerful enough to kill a human being in a matter of minutes. The Box Jellyfish, in particular, is responsible for more human deaths on the continent of Australia than snakes, sharks and saltwater crocodiles combined.
Myth: Sharks, thanks to the distribution of their cartilage, are completely immune from cancer.
Fact: Researchers have been debunking this myth since the 2000s, John C. Harshbarger of Washington University describing over 40 cases of cancerous tumours he had found in sharks and their close cousins – skates, rays and chimaerids.
Nevertheless, shark cartilage, in some cultures, is still seen as an effective cure – many claiming that it blocks the growth of new blood vessels, stopping the spread of tumours. It’s estimated that 200,000 sharks a month are killed for this cartilage, a very troubling figure considering the absence of any, scientifically-proven results.
5. They’ll help you get it up
Myth: Shark-fin soup has a lot of health benefits, especially in the bedroom department.
Fact: They have zero proven benefits and most certainly won’t improve anything in the bedroom. This doesn’t stop 100 million sharks being killed annually for their fins however, many bleeding to death on the ocean floor as they’re tossed overboard – finless and struggling.
A coveted delicacy in China, a huge value is placed on shark fins. The actual fin itself is tasteless though, added to the soup for their “chewy but crunchy” texture.
We’ll leave you with a final piece of advice on this one – if Gordon Ramsay says it “tastes like shit”, it probably does.
6. They’re everywhere
Myth: Sharks are confined to saltwater. We’re safe taking a dip in the local river.
Fact: While saltwater sharks are restricted to the marine realm, there are many species of river shark that are just as menacing-looking as their saltwater cousins. Many, however, are no bigger than a human, foot some measure mere inches long in fact.
However, we’re not safe to dip our toes in the river just yet – especially if you’re thinking of taking a dip in tropical, brackish rivers that flood with seawater from time to time. Bull sharks, one of the three sharks most dangerous to humans, are a brackish species of shark and are perfectly adapted to both the open ocean and rivers that meet the sea.
7. There’s always a bigger fish – with arms, legs and a great big net.
Myth: Nothing eats sharks, they’re the kings of the ocean – just look at those teeth.
Fact: Despite many species of sharks being quite literally armed to the teeth, they like many other ocean creatures are often the prey of other animals. While they may be safer than your average tuna, or tasty mackerel – they aren’t quite the apex predator of the ocean – some larger killer whales dining on these teethy beasties. Not to mention human beings.
8. And in the blue corner…
Myth: You should punch a shark right on the snout during an encounter – taking the match by TKO.
Fact: Not exactly, a swift bop to the nose might cause a shark to turn away – the nose one of the most sensitive parts of a shark – but if it was determined enough to attack in the first place, you aren’t going to throw it off the scent like this.
A punch is also much more likely to land right in the sharks gob, not quite the place you want your fist to be. Shark repellent is the best way to tell one of these fearsome fish that you don’t want to be shark bait – without causing any further aggro to the shark in question.
9. Forgetful fish
Myth: Sharks, like other fish, have puny brains and would stand no chance on fishy Family Fortunes.
Fact: While brain size differs from species to species, many have large – infinitely complex – brains that one would usually associated with a self-aware, socially sophisticated animal. A full-grown Great White has a brain measuring over 2 feet long – a linear, Y-shaped string of millions of neurons.
Almost two-thirds of a shark’s brain is devoted to its olfactory organs – their sense of smell – but some, like Hammerheads, have a special, separate giant lobe that houses their electromagnetic superpower. Many aren’t forgetful either – a Banjo Shark living off the coast of Port Jackson swims up to the same diver every time he dives, closing in for a quick cuddle session.
10.Everyone has their place
Myth: The world would be a better, safer place without these merciless, ocean-dwelling creatures.
Fact: Sharks are one of the top ocean predators, helping to maintain the delicate balance of life in our world’s oceans. As humans try their hardest to disrupt the natural chain, sharks try their best to fight back – feeding on the older, weaker animals and scavenging the ocean floor to keep everything clean down in the deep.
Not only do they keep prey and carbon balances in check, they also provide us with an opportunity to study, research and understand some of their behaviours – artificial shark skin a new technology sweeping the scientific community. Many believe these magnificent creatures could also unlock the answer to tooth and limb loss, their regeneration properties some of the most unique in the animal kingdom.
About time we started protecting them – they won’t be around forever if the current extinction rates are anything to go off. Getting behind community-driven charities such as the Shark Trust and 4Ocean will not only help us all take a step closer to protecting these beautiful creatures, it will help us increase our understanding and finally quash all these myths.