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Man’s most merciless killer is the cunning vicious shark

Posted in Fish, Nature, Sea, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about sharks originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Great White Shark, picture, image, illustration

The Great White Shark, deadliest of all the shark family

It was calamity enough when the Nova Scotia fell victim to German torpedoes on the morning of the 28th November, 1942. With 900 men aboard, 765 of them Italian prisoners, she went down about thirty miles from the coast of Natal, South Africa. But only then, as hundreds floundered helplessly in the water, did tragedy at its most terrible and gruesome strike. The sharks came.

They were between six and seven feet long, and their gaping grins exposed razor-sharp teeth as they sped smoothly through the warm waters towards the struggling men. Those lucky enough to be on makeshift rafts clubbed wildly with spars of driftwood in attempts to drive off the relentless sea predators. Most of those in the water died horribly.

Out of the original 900 men, 192 survived. Of the dead a few were killed by the explosions and more than a few were drowned. The others, numbered in hundreds, were killed by sharks.

There are many similar grim tales. Eighty out of a hundred shipwrecked men in lifebelts were massacred by sharks near Bermuda. Off the coast of South America during World War Two, the numbers of shipwrecked shark victims were estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Every year now, thousands of people are believed to fall prey to these deadly killers of the sea. For all his technology and talent for killing off most wild animals, Man has failed to overcome the shark, one of the most fearsome man-killers of all time.

It is hardly surprising. The underwater world has not yet been mastered by Man. On the other hand, sharks have inhabited it for something like 250 million years, and appear to have lost none of their prehistoric savagery. Superbly adapted to submarine life – having no skeletons, but gristly cartilaginous vertebrae – they have no cause to fear anything that invades their environment.

Even though about 230 of the more than 250 species known are thought to be harmless to Man, the others can be so treacherous, dangerous and cunning that, unless safe aboard an enormous ship, no one can feel truly safe.

Grey Nurse Sharks are known to sidle into shallows and creep on their bellies across sand to snatch unsuspecting paddlers, Tiger Sharks have been known to attack and overturn fishing boats, and the deadliest of all, the Great White Shark, sometimes as long as 60 feet, will snap at almost anything that comes its way, including small craft, which present no problems to digestive juices capable of dissolving metal!

Attempting to fight back is virtually pointless. For a start, sharks rarely bite only once, but two or three times, and then with chilling, dogged calmness. If they do meet with retaliation, they never appear to know when they are dead. Some can fight for a day at the end of a line, be slashed deeply with knives, heavily clubbed and even shot, yet still stay alive and savage a man mortally.

Fishermen who have landed sharks, for instance, will sensibly give them a wide berth for a while, for there are isolated reports of their feigning death on quaysides before making a last mutilating snap at the unwary. And how astonishing this is can be realised from the fact that a shark’s internal organs collapse entirely when it is hauled from water.

Sharks have always been feared, but only in the last twenty years has their true menace been realised. During that time, hundreds of thousands of pounds – possibly millions – have been spent on research into sharks. Although there are large bodies of opinion that support wildlife conservation, not many people object to war on the shark – public enemy number one of the sea.

Why are there suddenly intensive efforts to bring it to heel? There are several reasons.

Man is now very near the time when he will “harvest” the seas for minerals, new foodstuffs and whatever assets he can use. As a result, man-eating sharks must be driven away from those areas in which he works. This is also becoming an age in which Man enjoys more leisure and that means he is more frequently sailing his tiny boats or swimming at sunny coastal resorts. Sharks can halt that leisure and cripple the industry built round it. Merely a couple of isolated shark attacks have been sufficient to leave beaches deserted for months, and millions of pounds have been lost by holiday resorts.

Other kinds of livelihoods must be protected, too. Native fishermen, still using primitive craft, disappear regularly – perhaps in thousands – and are suspected shark victims. Nowadays, with populations expanding and more mouths to feed, it becomes more imperative to protect these fishermen. And then, strangely, there is a military factor to be considered. Theatres of war switch swiftly from one part of the world to another today, and it has been shown that morale can be devastatingly low when men have to sail, fly or fight in shark-infested areas.

So battle has commenced on the shark. But with what results? Jacques Cousteau, the famous French underwater explorer, has confessed ruefully: “I have never managed to understand them.” And that goes for just about every other scientist who has attempted to study them. So far, only a limited number of findings have been made.

Sharks are considered to be at their most vicious near Australia and the United States; followed closely by South Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, India and parts of South America. The reason for this may be straightforward. It appears that sharks rarely attack people in water cooler than 68°F. Place them in temperatures less than that and they often stop eating altogether.

Generally speaking then, the highest risks of attack are in the belt between latitudes 24 degrees North and 24 degrees South. That, however, does not mean they are not found elsewhere. They are prolific in parts of the Mediterranean – though seen there infrequently before the Suez Canal was opened – have been spotted as far north as the Arctic and have attacked as far north as the Irish coast.

They also appear loath to attack humans in more than two to five feet of water. Not that this is much consolation, because people rarely swim at greater depths than this. The fact must be encouraging for skin-divers, though, many of them claim that sharks will rarely attack a person actually swimming underwater.

Blood, as most people know, is what nearly always brings them into attack. And this could be the reason why fishermen suffer so many fatalities. It isn’t just human blood that arouses sharks to killing frenzy but any blood – and fishermen are often surrounded by gutted, bloody fish. With its phenomenal powers of smell, the shark soon homes in, occasionally leaping right into a shallow boat.

Two other facts about the shark’s manner seem peculiar. They don’t appear to attack people who are in groups. Though they may make menacing darts, they will not usually snatch at anyone until that person is isolated from the group. Cowardice? Possibly. But that is not the full answer. Once they have bitten a person, they keep attacking relentlessly and no amount of intervention from helpers can drive them away.

Cousteau claims that the only thing a shark respects is a punch on the nose. Other people say that clapping hands or shouting drives them away. No method or device is entirely certain to stop an attack, and sharks remain among the world’s most voracious man-eaters.

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