Are shark myths true?

2012-08-28 00:00

IMAGINE swimming off the South African Cape coast in nothing more than a bikini and then splashing about in the water to attract sharks.

Not keen? Fortunately, for the viewers of Nat Geo Wild, veteran KwaZulu-Natal scuba diver and shark conservationist Gail Addison of Blue Wilderness Diving was happy to volunteer her services.

Together with her husband, shark expert Mark Addison, fellow divers, Olivia Symcox and Clare Daly, scientists, Matt Dicken, Ryan Johnson and Vic Peddemors, and cinematographer Andy Casgrande, she was part of a project to either dispel or prove the myths around sharks and why they sometimes attack humans.

In Shark Attack Experiment!, which can be seen on DStv channel 261 at 9 am and 2 pm today, the team performs a number of demonstrations in the ocean, both day and night, with the aim of turning the shark’s demonic reputation on its head and show that far from being mindless killers, they are sophisticated predators that deserve protection and respect.

From July to November last year, the team swam with every species of shark along the South African coastline, including black tips and tiger sharks at Aliwal Shoal, Zambezi sharks at Protea Banks, blues and makos off Cape Point and great white sharks in the Gansbaai area of the Cape.

“We have done a lot of National Geographic and BBC work, but this show was different … it was about answering questions and helping the public to understand how this apex predator operates ... We looked at issues like does sound in the water, like splashing, attract sharks? Do colours attract sharks? What about heartbeats or peeing in the water,” Addison said.

Among their findings was that sharks are definitely attracted by low-frequency sounds, including splashing or a plastic bottle being crumpled — disproving the myth that sharks only rely on their sense of smell to find prey.

“Sound travels really well underwater … but just because they are attracted to sound, doesn’t mean sharks will attack. In our experiments, they checked out the sound, but were simply not interested in us. We’re just not on their menu,” Addison said.

Asked for her thoughts on the controversial topic of chumming the water to attract sharks to dive boats, Addison said she and her husband do use bait boxes at Blue Wilderness, as they would find it hard to get sharks and humans together without help.

She added that it is vital to make live sharks more valuable than dead ones, and the only way to do so is to encourage tourism. “People need to see sharks in their natural habitat. Only by learning more about them will people begin to understand that they are not monsters,” Addison said.

She does, however, believe that better regulation is needed in the industry and that people should never use any kind of mammal product to attract sharks. “We only ever use fish and fish oil products, which are placed in a specially built bait ball made from fibreglass and with small holes to allow the odour to permeate,” she said.

Addison, whose favourite species are the black tips and tiger sharks, said she had been captivated by the beautiful blue sharks during filming, but was concerned the species is in trouble. Shark numbers are down and during the project, the team struggled to find any good-sized sharks.

It’s not a problem limited to blue sharks. Between 70 and 100 million sharks die in the oceans every year — some are caught for their fins, others die when they are caught up in long-line fishing. The figures are simply not sustainable for the long-term, especially when you consider that a ragged tooth shark only has a pup every two years.

Addison said: “People have to remember that we’re in their environment. It’s not our playground, it’s their home. We have to look after the sharks and their environment. Sadly, we don’t. Instead, we pump our rubbish, our litter and our sewage into the oceans, and we are over-fishing, which is having a devastating effect.”

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