Respecting ancestors

The best kind of visitors are those who respect the locals and their environment.

First Nations peoples of the sea in Australia and the Pacific have always respected sharks. They are often seen as ancestors and sometimes gods.

For some groups of First Nations peoples in Australia and the Pacific sharks are totems and ancestors. Harming a shark would be the same as hurting a member of your family. The ocean is sharks’ territory and if you venture there, you respect their ways.

When you gain knowledge of something, you actually start to respect it. When you respect it, you learn to love it. And when you love it, you care for it.

Ray Timbery, Bidjigal/Dharawal man.

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Video Transcript

When it's feeding time for them, why would you go and swim with them? That's their hunting time and that's that understanding - when you gain knowledge of something, you actually start to respect it. When you respect it, you learn to love it, and when you love it, you care for it. And all of those things come and it comes from the beginning of your life, and It's a connection that was taught through everything.

I guess if your totem was the shark, then you'd care for the shark but then you'll also care for its habitat. Therefore you connect with the people that might care for the seaweed or the things that are around it, because everything has a purpose, everything has a role, and everything has a place. And that's because our ancestors looked and listened to everything that was living, instead of trying to change it. They learnt from it, they understood it and then they taught it.

Sea rights from our perspective is that we have a cultural and a familial right to Sea Country. Nothing could be better than having sharks managed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that have management and cultural relationships and cultural obligations to those animals. There couldn't be any better outcome for Australia and there couldn't be any better outcome for sharks because Aboriginal people have been here forever, as I said so over 80,000 years. We have all of those relationships, all of that knowledge, all of the connection. Depending on where we've come from on those coastal areas, we can really relate all of those oral stories that are in deep time in our knowledge and our understanding. So to have that with the scientific knowledge of understanding how we need to care for sharks and how we need to manage those environments is just an excellent combination.

There's the surface of the ocean. I'm in one world. I jump in, or roll in, and I enter another world. And it's a world where I can fly. I can spread my arms and fly. There is no gravity. And I look at all the new animals. Animals that I've known for a long time. Small and large. And it's magic. It's a privilege. In a way you're going back in time a long, long way.The underwater world hasn't changed a lot in the last thousands of years.

And it's as nature intended to be. Or it was. I think now it's changed. Sadly, not for the better.

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Ray Timbery, Bidjigal/Dharawal man. Image: Jacob Everson © Jacob Everson

Ray Timbery

Bidjigal/Dharawal man

It’s a massive practice to look after the ocean. The animals tell us about themselves. We have to look and listen and spend time with the animals. In learning to love something you lose fear.

We learn to love sharks through knowledge. We follow our instinct and believe in it. It’s the old way.

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Joseph Lum-on, master diving instructor. Image: Courtesy of Joseph Lu-mon © Joseph Lu-mon

Joseph Lu-mon

Master diving instructor, Fiji

We have a link to our ancestral shark god. We know that we are in his element, so anything can happen. Since we were children we have always been told the shark god would protect us.

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Portrait shot of Obery Sambo, visual and performance artist, dancer, from Meuram Island in the Torres Strait. Photographed as part of the Sharks exhibition as the representative of Torres Strait. Image: Abram Powell © Australian Museum

Obery Sambo

Meuram Island man, Torres Strait Islands

At high tide a lot of different sharks come onto the reef, especially Tiger Sharks. Even at low tide, hammerheads, greynurses. Some Bull Sharks. We don’t dive at high tide. It’s not our time to harvest. It’s their time. When they’re off the reef, then it’s our time to hunt.

Operation chainmail

Valerie and Ron Taylor were the first people to film sharks without using a cage. They worked on the movie Jaws and produced films and TV series about sharks.

He paid $2,000 USD (almost $16,000 USD today) to have this stainless steel mesh suit made in the USA, but when it arrived, it was too small for him. However it was a snug fit on Valerie.

After a first, unsuccessful attempt to attract sharks, she stuffed tuna fillets into the sleeves and dived in again. Success! The couple learned about how sharks attack, feed and bite, and Ron captured footage for a television feature Operation Shark Bite.

If you’re scared of sharks, stay out of the ocean. It’s not your environment.

Valerie Taylor AM. Friend to sharks, Member of the Order of Australia for conservation.

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Video Transcript

Medieval knights wore chainmail. Ron thought we should have a suit made of this material, and Ron put it on and found he couldn't move. It didn't stretch like neoprene. It was like this. So guess who wore it? Me.

It took us years to get a shark to bite. We had to put tuna fillets under the mesh or tie it over the mesh. And rub I'd it and make myself like a bait. And we made a very interesting discovery. They didn't have crush power. They rely on the cutting edge of their teeth. I'd say the crush power of Nursey, my friendly shark, was great because she crushed up molluscs, but it was the two teeth shark, potentially dangerous sharks, well very dangerous sharks, they just shook around for a bit and let go.

They're used all over the world now, guys who have to clean shark tanks, scientists who are working with sharks and very much so on islands and other peoples who have what you call a Wild Shark Show underwater, where they bring the sharks in using food so diving tourists could sit around and take photographs and watch. And if they get bitten, which is generally an accident, they're fine. The shark lets go.

Fear

The release of the movie Jaws in 1975 was disastrous for sharks. It portrayed them as killing machines; monsters to be feared and hated.

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Video Transcript

I think it's just an inherent thing that we don't like to be eaten by another animal. With sharks, it's worse than a lot of other things because you can't see it before it happens.

And it's fear of the unknown. It's fear of something that is more dominant in its space. And that's okay. But it doesn't mean that you have to be doing everything that you possibly can to either wipe out that species or complete disrespect of it, because everything has a right to exist.

If you're frightened of being attacked by a shark, which is very unlikely, don't swim in the ocean where there are sharks. Plenty of places to swim where there aren't any. It's very odd to me that the shark is always blamed. We humans go into an alien environment where we don't belong and thrash around like a wounded fish and expect the animal that lives there, who's home this is, not to come up and investigate. They investigate with their teeth. They don't have hands. They can't go and say, "Oh, I don't like that." And they usually if you stay still, they'll let you go. How do I know? I've been bitten four times.

The role of media is very important. Once this happens, we call it a frequency effect. So for instance, the Australian surfer who got attacked by a shark and survived the shark couldn't get him, but it was in the media all over the place. And then people think, hey, this happens very often. There was only one event.While it's extremely rare, it's that the way that's portrayed by the media, you know, really heightens that that fear.

All of the language associated with sharks in the media is usually to do with lurking, stalking, attacking and that kind of stuff. And they don't use that kind of language with dolphins or killer whales. You know, killer whales kill things and they don't say they're lurking down the beach.

Following the movie Jaws, great whites are probably the most well-known shark on the planet. Jaws In 1976 had media attention. These are the big posters, right? And the music. Unfortunately, it gave sharks very bad reputation and they started a big culling of sharks, not just in America, but Australia, around the world.

And these gung-ho men, "Look, I've just killed a shark." and there'd be some poor, harmless grey nurse shark lying there dead. I think it's very clear from looking at pretty much all potentially dangerous shark species, whether it's bull sharks, tigers or white sharks, they don't see humans as being natural prey items.

I know quite a lot of divers that have seen them in the wild, without the protection of a cage. The encounters have usually been brief. The animals usually swum up, looked at the divers, inspected them, had a look. Looked at them "I don't know what you are" and swim off and leave them alone.

That is being real interesting, eye opener in my research to see how many times sharks will swim past humans, past surfers, swimmers without any interest at all and the people in the water inevitably have no idea that the shark's even close to them.

The most notorious shark attack of all time

In late July 1945, the USS Indianapolis was on a secret mission delivering parts of the first atomic bomb to a US air force base on the Pacific island of Tinian.

Returning to the Philippines, it was hit by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, caught fire and sank. About 900 survivors huddled together in groups in the open sea, waiting in vain for a response to their SOS call.

Over the next four harrowing days and nights, most men were picked off by circling sharks or drowned. Finally the survivors were spotted by a navy plane.

USS Indianapolis underway in 1944 in ‘dazzle’ camouflage.
USS Indianapolis underway in 1944 in ‘dazzle’ camouflage. Image: Courtesy US National Park Service gallery © US National Park Service gallery

Only 317 men survived. Estimates of the number who died from attacks by sharks range from a few dozen to almost 150.

Sailors from the sunken USS Indianapolis are circled by Tiger Sharks. Recoloured photograph from Mission of the Shark (1993).
Sailors from the sunken USS Indianapolis are circled by Tiger Sharks. Recoloured photograph from Mission of the Shark (1993). Image: TBC © TBC

Shark sleuths

On average, 10 people worldwide die from a shark bite each year. In Australia, 110 people drown each year. We know this thanks to the International Shark Attack File, which documents all known shark attacks and investigates new ones.

Documented shark attacks on US Navy servicemen during World War II saw the file established sixty years ago. It is held by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the American Elasmobranch Society – people studying sharks, skates and rays.

The International Shark Attack File provides an interactive map of all known attacks on it's database – dating back to 1900.
The International Shark Attack File provides an interactive map of all known attacks on it's database – dating back to 1900. Image: Australian Museum © Australian Museum

Attacks inspire movies

Jaws (1975) was inspired by a series of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916, in which five people were attacked within the first 12 days of July. Only one survived.

Over the same period in Europe tens of thousands of soldiers were being slaughtered during the Battle of the Somme. Nevertheless, in the USA, the shark attack story bumped World War I from the headlines.

Jaws created a whole new movie genre. The TV film Jersey Shore Shark Attacks was made in 2012. The action begins when undersea drilling for a new park attracts sharks, which devour tourists

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Peter Benchley sits at an editing table with a copy of his original novel that inspired the blockbuster film. Image: Supplied by Allstar Picture Library Ltd © Allstar Picture Library Ltd

Jaws, the reboot

Peter Benchley, author of the book on which the movie Jaws was based, was horrified by the hatred of sharks the film provoked. If it was updated, he said, the shark would have to be the victim, because worldwide, people were now the aggressors, driven by ignorance and greed. He also pegged the media for promoting negative attitudes towards sharks.

... the shark is not invading our territory, threatening our homes or livelihoods; we humans are the trespassers. And if we choose to swim in the sea, to enter the realm of these wonderful animals – animals that have survived, virtually unchanged, for millions of years, animals that serve a critical function in the oceanic food chain
– we are taking a chance.

Peter Benchley writing in The Guardian, 9 November 2000

Jaws movie poster (1975).
Jaws movie poster (1975). Image: Supplied by BFA © BFA

Scientists urge encounters with sharks to be called ‘bites’ not ‘attacks’

In 2021, authorities in Queensland and New South Wales suggested that the phrase ‘shark attack’ be replaced by the more neutral ‘shark bites’. Scientists support this too:

'Attack’ means aggressive intent and builds fear. ‘Bite’ is a more accurate description of what happens.

Amanda Hay Collection Manager, Icthyology, Australian Museum

Caution!

Known to be dangerous to humans! Do not approach!

Out of about 500 species worldwide, these three are responsible for nearly all fatal incidents. The Dusky Shark and Bronze Whaler have also occasionally caused serious injuries.

The White Shark’s large serrated teeth are made for munching on seals, penguins, fishes and seabirds. This apex predator is responsible for more fatal attacks on humans than any other marine animal.

Dangerous shark species, White Shark, Bull Shark and Tiger Shark
Dangerous shark species, White Shark, Bull Shark and Tiger Shark. Image: Australian Museum © Australian Museum

Paul de Gelder

Navy diver, shark bite survivor, shark conservationist.

After losing his arm and leg in a Bull Shark attack in Sydney Harbour, Paul decided to turn the experience into something useful and learned all he could about sharks.

Most people who are attacked by sharks are ocean people. We know the risks. It’s a dangerous, wild environment.

Paul de Gelder

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Video Transcript

I really didn't think I was going to make it back to the boat. Swimming through a pool of my own blood.

I was conducting a counter-terrorism exercise with the Navy clearance divers. A three meter bull shark came up from underneath me and grabbed me by the hamstring. I'd basically just given up and accepted the fact that I was going to die.

I hated sharks. I thought, Why don't we just kill them all? Then we can swim in the oceans, don't have to worry about anything and it'll be glorious. Believe it or not, this big blue, wobbly thing out here called the ocean - that keeps us alive. There's more oxygen, more of our breathing oxygen produced from the ocean than anything else on Earth. If we keep treating it the way that we do, killing the sharks by overfishing and the shark finning trade, the ocean would just be a swamp and we'd be dead.

Before I was in the Navy, I was an airborne soldier jumping out of planes, shooting rocket launchers, and then the Navy, I'm dealing with bombs and I'm doing deep diving, and, you know, I chose an inherently dangerous life. So you can't blame the things that go wrong when they happen.

Most people think I'm a little bit crazy, but something happens to you the first time you dive with sharks and you build up this beautiful respect with them and you see them in their element and not as a vicious man-eating terror. They're just something pretty special. Without the sharks keeping the fish stocks in check, they'll demolish all of the algae, all of the coral reefs, and that will destroy the whole ecosystem. And we won't have these oceans that we love so much.That's why the message of shark conservation is so important.

So now, not only do I not want to all be killed, I'm out here trying to save them as much as I can and spread the word about how important, how amazing they actually are. So the fact that we can get funding through brands like Costa to fund this research and fund the scientists out on their expeditions is invaluable to us as conservationists. We can go out there, we can spread the message so everyone has that knowledge, and knowledge is power.

That's why I'm not afraid of sharks anymore.



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Composition of various species of sharks in an underwater setting