Do you think it is OK to touch sharks when diving?
This is a very interesting and relevant question, especially in light of the ever increasing popularity of shark diving. I’m certainly against the grabbing, riding and chasing of sharks, this is pure harassment and clearly not appropriate conduct! I personally have never touched a shark when diving, although I almost did when I was diving with Blue Sharks. I was so captivated by these sharks that I became transfixed, so much so that I ignored my camera, choosing instead to make eye contact with the animal itself and not through a lens. I found myself reaching out as a particular shark got closer, purely to make a connection and intensify the encounter I suppose; as it was the shark just missed my fingertips and that was it, I didn’t pursue it further. I think it’s quite a human trait wanting to reach out and touch something. It’s how we connect and how we learn; that said many divers have reported that contact with sharks have been initiated by the sharks themselves. To touch or not to touch depends on the situation; I wouldn’t personally advocate it though because the likelihood of touching turning into harassment is a very real possibility this is irresponsible in itself and if it leads to a diver being bitten as a result, will then add to the misconception of sharks, with the blame likely to be placed on the shark rather than the actions of the diver.
Is it true sharks don’t get cancer?
It’s not that sharks don’t get cancer but it is extremely rare as far as we know. It’s important to remember that many forms of cancer which affect humans are dietary or lifestyle related. Although it is possible that we can learn from the sharks immune system to combat different types of cancer, research should be carried out responsibly (shark cartilage was touted as a miracle cure for cancer, which resulted in many sharks being killed unnecessarily to market cartilage pills).
Aren’t sharks just fish with big teeth?
No! This is precisely the stereotypical media portrayal of sharks. The idea: put “shark” and “teeth” in a headline and you’ll sell papers, fill out movie theatres etc… In reality sharks are complex animals. Generally a shark possesses a large, well developed brain. Shark brain-mass to body-mass ratios are comparable to many birds and mammals.
Evidence suggests sharks can learn and remember (improving their hunting technique by trial and error, nurse sharks were taught to press a button for food, a technique they retained for months after) and are social animals with reports of co-operative feeding such as great white sharks moving a whale carcass into deeper water, and remarkably reports of “play” with a group of Porbeagles chasing an individual holding a section of Kelp between its teeth. When the Kelp was seized by another the other Porbeagles chased the new owner of the Kelp.
So large brains with the ability to learn and remember, displays of social complexity, curiosity, possibly even playfulness, coupled with well developed sensory systems (low frequency sound detection 20-300 Hz from 1 km or more, water-borne scents 1 part per billion from several hundred metres or more, vibration detection from 100 m or more, well adapted eyesight especially in low light conditions, detection of electrical fields down to 0.5 nanovolts/cm²).
Still think sharks are just fish with big teeth?
Don’t you get scared?
Working with sharks and specifically freediving with wild sharks is not about risk taking. True, there’s an element of risk involved but I’m not reckless, it’s about being comfortable in a situation and not harassing the shark. It’s important to keep a sensible distance between you and the shark. Don’t make it feel threatened by invading its territory too much or by surrounding it as you’re effectively blocking its escape route.
In essence respect the shark: you’re in its domain, also remember unprovoked attacks are extremely rare, most attacks are as a result of direct provocation, curiosity (generally not fatal) or mistaken identity.
A sharks objective is not to eat humans!
How did you get where you are today?
I get many career based questions via email from young people eager to find out how they can pursue a career in shark research. I love hearing from each and every one of you – so please still drop me that email, however if you have a specific career based question please check out my blog article here which details many career based questions.