Great White Shark

Bookshelf: Great White Shark

Great White Shark – Richard Ellis & John McCosker

Great White Shark
Great White Shark

THIS is the book on great white sharks I’ve been looking for. It was published a few years ago (in 1995), but synthesises everything known about great white shark history, biology and behaviour that was known at that stage. It’s written in such a way that it’s very accessible to the non-biologist, and yet won’t bore someone with more formal training in the field than I have (i.e. any).

Ellis and McCosker debunk myths about great white shark dimensions – you simply will not find one larger than about 6.5 metres – and include photographs of massive specimens taken by fishermen. The scale of these creatures is magnificent. There is an upsetting chapter on fishing for great whites – some people do this with rabid abandon, viewing them simply as a species to be destroyed – and one on their role in literature and popular culture. Jaws did a lot of damage. As humans I do think we have a primal fear for these creatures, but fanning the flames with depictions of shark behaviour that are ridiculously overblown – while it makes for a great thriller – does not do us or the sharks any good. Ellis sings the praises of Peter Matthiessen’s writing about the great white in Blue Meridian – saying it is eminently worthy of the creature.

The other chapter I found upsetting was the one on great whites in captivity, but more recent publication of The Devil’s Teeth and the Monterey Bay Aquarium website provide an update on that piece of history that is slightly more optimistic than the picture painted in this book. While one admires an aquarium that has lofty aims of improving the public profile of sharks by exhibiting one, the determination of some aquaria to have a “maneater” on show led to the unnecessary death of many sharks as they figured out by trial and error how to keep these energetic, hungry, aggressive long distance swimmers in captivity.

The chapters on shark biology and behaviour – particularly the analysis of great white shark attacks and fatalities – are fascinating. Sharks are huge sensing machines, with a bewildering array of sensory organs designed to enhance their chances of finding large, tasty meals. They are able to keep their bodies at a significantly higher temperature than the surrounding water, which requires clever design (blood is passed over the swimming muscles, essentially re-using the heat generated through exercise) and lots of calorie-rich food. They have never been observed mating, but other sharks have and it’s assumed that the process is similar for whites. The bite marks that many females exhibit on their heads indicate that foreplay involves a lot of teeth. White shark pups are born at about 1.2 metres in length, perfect little replicas of their mother (whose appetite is hormonally suppressed during pupping to prevent her from eating her young). The baby sharks are independent and self-sufficient from the word go.

Ellis theorises that the rise of attacks on surfers can be accounted for by the increased use of shorter surfboards that allow the hands and feet of the surfer to hang over the edge –  something that did not happen with the old longboards. The silhouette of a surfer on a short surfboard, seen from below, strongly resembles that of a seal. He also says that the attack pattern of great whites – bite once, wait for the prey to exsanguinate, and then return to eat – means that water users who are in pairs or groups stand a far better chance of surviving an attack than lone spearfishermen or surfers, because their buddies can remove them from the water quickly and treat for shock and blood loss (the shark usually loses interest after biting a human once – the ratio of muscle to fat is too high for their taste). The sensitivity of the great white’s eyes means that it cannot risk a prolonged battle with its prey. A shark that loses an eye is toast out in the wild. Surprisingly, far, far more people have survived great white shark attacks than have perished in them.

You can get the book here. Highly recommended with magnificent photographs, both historical and recent.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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