When I was a kid, I had no desire to see a shark up close and personal. Except at the Aquarium where I was safe behind 6 feet of glass. Sadly I fell victim to the widespread fear people have of sharks, which is probably related to how they’re portrayed in horror stories such as Jaws. But what some people don’t seem to realize is that sharks should be more scared of us. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, and for what? Their fin, to make Shark Fin Soup. And how many shark attacks do you think happen per year? Less than 100.
The first time I remember seeing a shark, I was not afraid. It seemed to glide carelessly around the cylindrical tank at the New England Aquarium, and I would try to navigate through the crowd of parents and kids, trying to follow it as it made it way higher towards the surface. At the top of the tank, my camera was poised ready for the sharks to make their way up so I could snap some shots, capturing their elegance in a moment of time. I would even try to mimic the photos on the postcards being sold in the gift shop, not that my camera or phone could take anything nearly as high quality as those pictures.
My sister, who longs to study sharks for a career (something I’m certainly not brave enough to do), introduced me to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel a few years ago, and since then my knowledge about these underwater predators has increased with the new scientific discoveries and ways of understanding them. The ocean, so full of mysteries, was being investigated and shared with me through the TV screen. Some episodes had exaggerated drama which made me wonder if they were really trying to help people understand sharks better or play up what the horror movies started. Little did I know that my experience with these underwater wonders would get personal.
Last May I went to the Aquarium with some family members, including my autistic cousin. His mom drove us in her van, and I was behind her son in full view of the tablet screen playing the movie Jaws on repeat. This was the first time I had ever seen it. And the second. When we got to the Aquarium, we looked at the penguins and made our way around the giant tank, watching the fish and turtles and, of course, the sharks, which was a special treat.
At the Shark & Ray Touch Tank, we headed towards the end mangroves where the brown spotted epaulette sharks like to hide. My cousin guided her autistic son’s hand in the water. Then something strange happened. One of the touch tank’s brown-banded bamboo sharks swam right up to us at the edge of the tank so we could pet it. The Aquarium staff were astounded; the shark had never done that before! And the weirdest thing was, it stayed and let us pet it for a really long time. All the other rays and sharks don’t stay long, but this one did. We wondered if the shark was smart or had some ability to sense my little cousin’s disability.
My latest encounter with sharks was a Shark Week at the Movies event host at the Revere Showcase Cinemas where they showed an episode from last year and this year’s Shark Week, handing us foam shark fin hats as we picked up the tickets. I won’t give away what happens in the 2017 episode (you should have been there!) but I will say there may have been a groundbreaking (or ocean-breaking?) discovery about Great White Sharks. The event got me excited to see what will come this week.
Here are some of my favorite, more memorable episodes from previous Shark Weeks:
- “Air Jaws: Fins of Fury” (2014) in which the team searched for Colossus, probably the largest Great White Shark. Ever. And he jumped out of the water over the photographer.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUjwHg0INBA
- “Zombie Sharks” (2014) explores how sharks, when flipped upside down, become immobile. Orcas have discovered this and use it as a hunting strategy on Great Whites.
- “Alien Sharks: Close Encounters” (2015), an episode full of freaky sharks that live deep in the ocean. The Goblin Shark is the weirdest-looking one of all.
- “Jaws of the Deep” (2016) has a SharkCam team deploying a camera that catches Great Whites in action deep in the ocean. They’re looking for a big shark named Deep Blue.
When you think of “shark fiction”, you think of Jaws by Peter Benchley. What else do you think of? I bet not much. Sharks are not portrayed often in writing, and when they are, it’s usually a horror story. That’s what sells. But here’s an idea – take some of the classic horror films and rewrite it in the shark’s point of view. He was just trying to say hello!
With his teeth.
Or you could write a comedy skit like Saturday Night Live’s “Land Shark.”