Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Shark? This book gives a point of view. – Daily Press

The Marconi Wireless Station on Cape Cod, Massachusetts is famous for being the first US site to receive Titanic distress calls. Just to the south is Marconi beach, surrounded by cliffs that hide all traces of civilization. Once you’ve rushed to shore, it’s easy to pretend you’ve traveled back in time to 1500. A sign at the entrance warns that great white sharks hunt in the shallow waters of the beach and that people were “seriously injured or killed”. along the coastline. The panel features a realistic representation of an oncoming shark and a bar graph indicating the months of peak activity (September and October). I think of the bar chart every time I surf Marconi, dancing among the seals in a wetsuit that makes me indistinguishable from them.

The unease is mitigated, but not totally neutralized, by nostalgia. I grew up near what is colloquially known as the Red Triangle, a shark-rich segment of ocean off Northern California. The water there was opaque, which heightened the impression of mysterious life forms swarming below. Later, I toyed with a theory that my eyesight had been permanently improved in childhood by constantly scanning the horizon for dorsal fins. But I’ve never seen any. My only unpleasant animal encounter was accidentally swallowing a jellyfish after it was thrown headfirst into white water.

Despite the culture’s enduring fascination with sharks – “Jaws” and its sequels, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the film where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark, the film where Blake Lively almost gets eaten by a shark, the movie where Ian Ziering dives into a shark’s mouth with a chainsaw and then chainsaws out – I shielded myself from information about sharks under the logic of ‘What I don’t know might hurt, and that’s precisely why I don’t”. I do not want to know it.

It took a gentle hand to guide me into undesirable territory. The hand belongs to David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, whose new book is titled “Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive With the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator.” The book’s introduction features a photograph of Shiffman gently gripping a tiger shark in a holding pond; his expression is that of a father cradling his firstborn. This suggests that there could be ecstasy as well as agony in forging an acquaintance with these cartilaginous fish.

(Something I learned a few pages later: Fish is plural only when describing multiple members of the same species. About twenty yellowfin are fishbut a group of 20 yellowfin plus a skipjack would be fishes. Stop that the next time you want to wow a 10-year-old.)

The argument in Shiffman’s book is that we should be doing a better job of protecting sharks, and his method is to drench analysis and policy recommendations in a coating of interesting facts. Among these facts: sharks existed not only before the dinosaurs, but also before the trees and the rings of Saturn. Some exhibit parthenogenesis. Some live in fresh water. A deep-sea species has bioluminescent gummies to lure prey into its mouth, like a swimming version of Hansel and Gretel’s candy house. One is millennial pink. One looks like a puppet.

Part of the author’s outreach is devoted to debunking the content of Shark Week, a “garbage fire of nonsense” that drives him mad with its “horribly inaccurate” storytelling. Shiffman points out that the fear of sharks is no more rational than the fear of cars, lawn mowers or toasters, which surpass all animals in terms of lethality. “From the 1990s to 2006, 11 Americans were killed by sharks, while 16 died by falling into holes on the beach,” he wrote.

For Shiffman, our failure to conceptualize relative risk is both an ecological and an aesthetic tragedy, undermining conservation efforts while preventing us from basking in the glory of sharks – with their dermal denticles, utter lack of bone and their ability to hear an injured fish from a mile away. The syllogism it implies is comforting: Only fools are afraid of sharks; you are not an idiot; so you are not afraid of sharks.

The outspoken contrasts with a 2005 bestselling book, “The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks” by Susan Casey. This one is designed for goosebumps. When two researchers from Casey’s book hop on a boat to observe shark activity, it isn’t long before “the dorsal fin of myth and nightmare rises from below and heads towards them like a sub- German sailor, creating a considerable wake”. The title of the book also plays on our fears, with a slight diversion of meaning; the “devil’s teeth” do not refer to sharks but to the rugged Farallon Islands in California where they congregate.

The dominant shark iconography of my youth (18 miles from the Farallon Islands, by the way) took the form of a bumper sticker from a nearby surf shop. The sticker was everywhere. It looked like a no smoking sign, with a red circle bisected by a slash – but instead of a cigarette, the circle contained the image of a shark. Like any respectable piece of knowledge, it wasn’t what it seemed. The idea of ​​banning sharks like one would ban cigarettes or double parking was a cosmic joke. Surfers who wore the sticker were on the same page: dressing up as prey and paddling through a shark habitat was like signing a liability waiver.

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In Cape Cod, an app called Sharktivity tracks sightings, with the idea of ​​”reducing encounters and promoting safety.” Whenever a white shark sighting is confirmed near a public beach, app users receive a red alert. Some of the tagged sharks have been named. (Agnes, Big Papi, Turbo, Sean.) From time to time, I monitor the app to see where the gang meets, although Sharktivity warns that “THE ONLY WAY TO COMPLETELY ELIMINATE A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A SHARK IS TO STAY ON THE SHORE.”

From Shiffman’s book I learned that death by Carcharodon carcharias and friends is much less likely than most shark media would have us believe. The haunting powers of Marconi’s bar chart have diminished. But maybe that’s because death by shark no longer seems like the worst way to perish, compared to the alternatives. Several times since reading “Why Sharks Matter” I have replayed the scenario in my head. Floating in salty bliss, I sense an aberrant change in the water molecules. A statistically abnormal large blank arrives. Maybe it’s Agnes. I’m stricken, shocked, and bleeding under a vast, uncaring sky, dying just as I lived: unsuspecting and swallowed up.



David Schiffman

Johns Hopkins University Press. 312 pages. $24.95.

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