“Shark: Why We Need to Save the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator" by Paul de Gelder; Mudlark (240 pages, $26.99)
He was their prey, then became their protector.
Paul de Gelder was a diver in the Australian Navy, running counterterrorism exercises in Sydney Harbor. In 2009, a 9-foot bull shark mistook him for breakfast.
“I was like a chew toy to this predator,” de Gelder writes in “Shark: Why we Need to Save the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator.” “My life did actually flash before my eyes, but then a strange thing happened. It let go. I was pulled out of the water and several surgical operations later, I woke up to discover I was missing half an arm and a leg.”
People would understand if he refused to go swimming again or developed a lifelong hatred of the marine life that’s been around for millions of years.
But as he healed, “I started to read more about sharks,” de Gelder writes. “I wanted to understand what had changed my life, and the more I learned, the more I realized how much we — as humans — are changing theirs.”
Since then, de Gelder has been a regular on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, even swimming with the kind of fanged fish that had attacked him. It’s made him a conservationist with a mission to help save sharks.
He knows it’s a difficult campaign. Humans have wiped out 90% of the ocean’s large fish in the past half-century. Still, convincing people that sharks need protecting can be a hard sell.
Although de Gelder has come to love these animals, he realizes most people look at them and hear the theme from “Jaws.” Sharks are man-eating monsters, most people assume. The truth, de Gelder acknowledges, is a bit more complicated.
But before we can appreciate these fantastic, ancient animals, he insists, we need to understand them.
First, about those teeth. They fascinate us, and it is true: Some species have ferocious bites. Their teeth regrow constantly and can change shape as the animal ages to accommodate different diets.
“The great white shark can have up to seven rows of exposed teeth at once and can cycle through an estimated 30,000 teeth in their lifetime,” de Gelder writes. “No wonder they don’t get cavities.”
Yet those teeth are, surprisingly, less critical to some species. Two of the biggest — the whale shark and the basking shark — eat mostly plankton. They swim slowly through the oceans with their mouths wide open, gobbling down whatever tiny organism swims inside.
There are over 500 species of sharks, and because many live in the deepest parts of the ocean, we’re still discovering new ones. The ninja lantern shark, whose eyes glow in the dark, was only first spotted in 2010. Their names can be as striking as their features.
For example, there’s the phenomenally ugly goblin shark and the megamouth, another slow-moving plankton feeder. There’s the famous T-shaped hammerhead and the oceanic white tip shark, whose predatory skills earned it the nickname “the wolf of the sea.”
The epaulette shark has developed some neat tricks: It can live for up to an hour out of the water and can shockingly walk on its fins. Slipping out of the ocean at night, it roams the nearby tidepools, enjoying a late supper of crabs, clams and shrimp.
Less discriminating in its diet is the tiger shark.
“Tiger sharks have been found with some extremely strange stuff in their stomachs, including a horse’s head and a fur coat,” de Gelder writes. “In one tiger shark’s stomach, believe it or not, they found a whole chicken coop, with the chickens still inside!”
As a shark attack survivor, de Gelder knows how dangerous these animals can be. Although he’s not a fan of films like “Jaws” that play on our fears (he even dislikes the cartoon “Shark Tale”), he acknowledges the genuine risks of encountering one of these apex predators in the ocean.
His book recounts several stories of man-eaters, two of which inspired “Jaws.”
The first occurred in New Jersey in the summer of 1916, as a “serial killer shark” prowled some 80 miles of coastline for 12 days. Four people were killed, and one was severely injured. A panic broke out. President Woodrow Wilson held emergency meetings, and a $5,000 reward was offered to whoever killed the fish.
“Using hooks, rifles and even dynamite, people took to the waters off New Jersey in search of vengeance, fame and cash,” de Gelder writes. “What followed was a massacre, with hundreds of sharks killed.”
Most of the sharks killed weren’t even dangerous, but eventually, fishermen caught and dispatched a great white. This was the culprit, given that it had 15 pounds of human remains in its stomach.
After that, the Jersey attacks stopped.
The second story involved the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in World War II. Torpedoed by a Japanese sub, it caught fire and began to sink. Without enough time or life rafts, many sailors jumped overboard.
Then the sharks showed up.
It’s difficult to catalog the causes of death; many sailors were already badly injured when they jumped. Others drowned. Survivors recounted a feeding frenzy once the oceanic whitetip sharks arrived. The water churned red with blood.
Roughly 900 sailors went into the water. When rescue ships arrived, only 316 remained.
It’s a horrific story. As a military veteran and a shark-attack survivor, de Gelder’s sympathies are with the victims. Yet he wonders if tales like this, and the fiction they inspire, haven’t led to irrational hatred and fear of an animal that is, after all, only doing what it was perfectly designed to do: swim and eat.
Shark attacks are horrifying. They are also, de Gelder stresses, extraordinarily rare — resulting in perhaps five to 10 fatalities a year. “You are 1,000 times more likely to die of choking or crossing a street,” he writes. “And 5,000 times more likely to be killed by a dog.”
The ocean, he reminds us, is the shark’s home, not ours. Bears and cougars prowl much of the American wilderness. Tourists aren’t supposed to wander into those areas carelessly. Why should the water be any different? Swimmers and surfers, he argues, need to be as smartly aware and careful as hikers and campers.
Yet sharks are despised in a way that bears and cougars aren’t, and it’s why they’re in a precarious state. Their demise is ours.
“Considering that between 50 and 80% of the world’s oxygen comes from our oceans, a collapse of shark populations, and its knock-on effects will be devastating to all life on earth,” he writes.
Besides being hunted for sport, sharks are also killed for the oil in their livers, which is used for cosmetics. And sharks are also caught for food. Although de Gelder points out, their meat is often toxic with heavy metals. Plus, the massive nets used to catch sharks also capture and kill dolphins and turtles.
“Sharks have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve, but the human race is killing them at a rate that will see many — if not most — species become extinct in the coming decades,” de Gelder warns. “We have a short time to act, or sharks will be lost to the world forever.”
And that’s a loss for everyone.