THE FIFTH COLUMN
The Mail & Guardian published a nice piece of writing by Jonathan Jones about surfer Mick Fanning’s escape from what we must presume, given the size of the dorsal fin captured on camera, was a great white shark (Visceral thrill as man beats Jaws). I particularly like Jones’s idea that the sea is Earth’s unconscious and sharks this big are among its nightmare denizens.
Jones’s anecdote of the terrifying film Jaws, based on Peter Benchley’s novel, reminded me of my trepidation on entering the sea in those days, never going further than waist-deep. That fear has never been completely overcome.
But there are some new twists to the Jaws plot. Great white sharks are now a protected species in South African waters. The dangerous shark in KwaZulu-Natal waters is our version of a bull shark, the Zambezi shark – the shark most responsible for fatal attacks in our waters.
When the Zambezi shark attacks, human is the preferred dish of the day. When the great white attacks, it has probably mistaken a human for its regular prey, the seal. Sharks that make this mistake have usually not fully figured out the difference between seals and humans; they are adolescents, not yet full-size, but thus more dangerous to humans than full-grown sharks.
As impressive as that dorsal fin steaming in on Fanning is, the shark is only two-thirds of the size it can grow to – more than 6m. It’s unlikely a full-grown great white could be scared off with a punch, even from Mike Tyson.
Shark warning signs in the Cape have a subtext that says: sharks are part of nature; we are invading their space, so take every precaution and we hope nothing happens to you, but if it were to please don’t hurt the shark. That 4m great white closing in on the surfer has right of way.
This is not purely for the ecological reason of preserving an endangered species. No (and here Benchley comes back into the picture), the Cape’s great whites earn millions in foreign currency, boosting local tourism, because they are media stars.
Benchley helped to make a National Geographic programme on the great white that showed it to be much misunderstood. Sharks are smart and use hunting strategies – they’re not mindless eating machines. Benchley said he had to rethink sharks after the programme.
It was also found that Australian great whites are camera-shy but South African sharks are virtuoso performers, breaking the surface with spectacular power leaps to seize a seal in their fearsome jaws.
A female great white swam from South African waters to Australia a few years ago – the fastest long-distance trip by an animal ever recorded (she was tagged).
The Australian attitude to her nearing their coast was one of apprehension; the South African one was more like: “You go, girl!”
Professor Damian Garside teaches at North West University, Mafikeng campus