Words by Tim, 24 VIC
Sharks are seriously misunderstood creatures. Sharks are one of the only living dinosaurs on the planet. The king of the ocean.
There is a real fear behind what we don’t understand, what we can’t control, what we are unable to overpower. Sharks fit into this category. They can harm us but we can’t harm them; well at least not directly. Today’s media are telling a story, and there is a large portion of intention going into sparking controversy and fear. It’s the media’s bread and butter. It what keeps viewers – making stories dramatic works.
In outdoor education there is a term called “real versus perceived risk”. The real risk being posed by the environment and the perceived risk coming internally from the person. Perceived risk is often imagined and designed by the individual and their mind and has been shown to be far greater than the real risk (depending on the person). I personally feel the fear behind sharks comes from perceived risks. Obviously, there is a real risk but there is a large fear based on what we read, watch and consume. Jaws still has a lasting effect on the minds of an entire generation and that generation’s children. People, Jaws was fake!
No wonder we are afraid. We are being told what to be afraid of, and every time we see a new story on a shark attack, the fear and the probability of it happening in your head increases.
Every summer after the Australia Day crowds die down and everyone goes back to their busy lives, coastal towns across the country start to quiet down. For most people, living a beach lifestyle is just a pipe dream. The ocean is something they dream of when wealthy and retired. For people who are lucky enough to have a quiet summer whilst everyone focuses on the 9-5 grind, February and March are the ideal time to be down the coast; the world somehow feels empty and free.
For myself, I aim to head down the coast for a few days in February. I go down to Kennett River, which is situated halfway between Lorne and Apollo Bay. I usually go alone and recharge. I read, write and attempt to surf.
In 2017 I was out surfing the point…well, trying too. It was late afternoon, the sky was greyer than I had seen it in some time, it was pouring rain and I was the only one out other than an older man bodysurfing in the shallows. The waves were small – 2-3 feet and there were long waits between sets. I had a nervous energy mixed with a feeling of optimism.
I was out in the water trying to sort through my thoughts while waiting for waves. “What am I going to do this year?”. As I lay on my board pondering, I saw a dark shape swimming about forty meters away. My instant thought was shark. My instant response was fear. I couldn’t move. It came a little closer and then swam away.
I was sure it was a shark. After my initial fear dissipated – and the shark had left – I decided I wasn’t going to test fate and got out of the water swiftly. The shark is the king of the ocean, after all.
I left the water that afternoon and sat on the beach recollecting what just happened. There was something profound about seeing a shark so close to me in the ocean. I thought about how unlikely it would be to be killed by such a creature. I knew irrational fear of such creatures was often blown out of proportion by people in society and media. My fear wasn’t my own.
I thought about the shark for the next few days. I continued to rationalise my fear and the longer I spent thinking about it, the more I was surprised by how I responded. I think sharks are incredibly fascinating creatures. The way they feed, their shape, their survival and how they will outlive the human race.
Among these thoughts, I remembered how horrified I was in school when I discovering about finning of sharks for shark fin soup. We kill hundreds of thousands of sharks and the moment a shark bites back, sharks are monsters. It’s a little ironic, if only we treated sharks like our pet dogs.
A point often missed is if you enter the ocean, you are entering a shark’s home – willingly. Research suggests if you are bitten by a shark, they have most likely mistaken you for a seal or something they find tasty. You also have more chance of winning the lotto than being bitten by a shark.
Let’s all try to remember sharks are beautiful creatures and deserve a place in this world just as much as us. Let’s stop allowing the media to spark our fear. Sharks are friends, not foe.
Illustration by Aileen, you can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc