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Into the heart of sharkness

Shark expert Greg Skomal torpedoes the Great White hype
By SHAULA CLARK  |  June 11, 2009

Unless you are a spectacularly moronic daredevil hell-bent on getting shark-shanked, New Englanders are more likely to be mowed down by a molasses tsunami or felled by Lizzie Borden's ax than they are to die in the maw of Jaws. (For perspective, the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack Files have no unprovoked-shark-attack fatalities in Rhode Island on record and only two in Massachusetts: one in Scituate in 1830, and one in Buzzards Bay in 1936.) Or, as Martha's Vineyard–based marine biologist and Discovery Channel "Shark Guy" Greg Skomal writes in his 2008 book, The Shark Handbook, "Virtually everybody . . . is more susceptible to harm from their own toilets than from sharks." Last week, I got chummy (oof) with Skomal via phone. 

SHARK ATTACKS ARE RARE, BUT, AS YOU PUT IT, "THERE ARE SOME TIMES WHEN THE PROBABILITY MOVES ABOVE ZERO." WHAT UPS THAT PROBABILITY FOR LOCAL BEACH-GOERS? It's the least of one's concerns at a beach, particularly in [southern New England]. But the one species that would be most likely to be implicated in any kind of attack on a human in the Northeast is the great white. And what conditions will precipitate that? Sharks tend to feed at periods of low light levels — dawn and dusk. What olfactory cues are they attracted to? Dead fish, or chopped-up fish, or blood. . . . You don't want to be in the water, bleeding profusely, far from shore while swimming alone at periods of dawn and dusk.

EVEN WHEN SHARKS ATTACK HUMANS, THEY PRETTY MUCH SPIT THEM OUT AND DON'T ACTUALLY EAT THEM. WHY? You're talking about animals that have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Their taste buds are finely tuned to other marine animals. The current line of thinking [about unprovoked shark attacks on humans] is that it's clearly a mistake . . . [and] that sharks spit out the human and don't consume them because they don't taste good. If [sharks] bite into a seal, [they're] immediately getting into a deep, rich blubber layer. And humans lack that — they're much bonier.

IN YOUR BOOK, YOU DISCUSS THE UNPLEASANT POSSIBILITY OF GETTING ACCIDENTALLY THWACKED BY A SURFACING BASKING SHARK. BESIDES ATTACKS, ARE THERE ANY KIND OF SHARK-RELATED RISKS WE SHOULD WORRY ABOUT? Unless you spend a lot of time handling sharks, then typically not. The smallest shark we have in our waters is the spiny dogfish, which is routinely captured by people who are targeting striped bass and bluefish and other species of fish. And they have spines at the base of their fins, and when you go and grab one, it's going to swing its tail around and jab ya! That's very painful, and it's loaded with bacteria. That's a provoked event. But for the average person who's minding their own business, not paying attention to sharks, they've got really nothing to worry about.

SO, IN THE SUPER-UNLIKELY SCENARIO THAT YOU ARE GETTING ATTACKED BY A SHARK, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? You'd want to leave the water as quickly as possible. It's really common sense. Don't take your eye off the shark. Back out of the water. And if you're a diver who has a bunch of speared fish, give the shark the fish, okay? You don't need 'em that badly. Now, if you happen to be in a situation where the shark has a hold of you, strike the shark any way you can.

IS THERE ANY TRUTH TO THE LORE THAT HITTING A SHARK ON THE SNOUT WHILE IT'S BITING YOU WILL TRIGGER IT TO AUTOMATICALLY DROP YOU? Yes. The sensitive areas on a shark are thought to be its snout, because it's got its nose there, it's got its electro-sensitivity capabilities there, and its eyes aren't too far away from that, either. Most sharks aren't used to their prey really striking back, so it spooks them, too.

A MARINE EDUCATOR IN HAWAII E‑MAILED ME THIS QUESTION ABOUT SHARK EYES. WHAT SHE SAYS IS THAT NO ONE SEEMS TO KNOW WHAT COLOR EYES THE GREAT WHITE HAS. SHE'S WONDERING IF ANYONE'S FIGURED THAT OUT. If you ask Quint from Jaws, he calls 'em [doing an impression of the Robert Shaw character's grizzled voice] "doll's eyes— lookin' at you with those doll's eyes." You gotta love that soliloquy. And he calls them doll's eyes because they look lifeless. And they look lifeless because there's no twinkle in them, and there's no coloration in them. You're basically looking through the [great white] shark's pupil into the darkness of the back of its eye.

SPEAKING OF JAWS, HOW LONG HAS SHARK-ATTACK HYSTERIA BEEN AROUND? Probably millennia. But yes, it strikes at some of our deepest fears . . . it's just the nature of the beast.

  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Nature and the Environment, Wildlife, Marine Animals,  More more >
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