Bookshelf: Shark!

Shark! – Robert Reid


Book covers (and titles) like this make me sigh and roll my eyes, but the eye rolling did not continue quite as vigorously once I cracked this volume open. The section titles are alarming (and alarmist), but I did find much of the content very interesting.

The Hunters and the Hunted comprises interviews with major figures in the Australian shark hunting pantheon, many of whom (such as Ron and Valerie Taylor, who feature in Blue Water White Death and Blue Meridian) got a bit of education and became noted shark conservation figures, and made a good living from photographing sharks and working in the shark tourism industry. Others, such as Vic Hislop (be warned that the photos are disturbing if you follow that link), remain aggressively convinced that sharks need to be “controlled” and preferably eradicated completely. Hislop speaks disparagingly of the “greenies” who believe that sharks (and indeed all animals) have as much right to exist on earth as humans do, and is certain that hundreds of missing person cases around the Australian coast are all due to shark attacks.

Reid has assembled an important set of oral histories, and while the life stories of his interview subjects are interesting, so are their attitudes towards nature, conservation, and man’s role on earth. One of his conservationist interview subjects, who used to hunt sharks for sport and entertainment and be filmed doing so, does not feel there was anything wrong with what he used to do – reading between the lines of what he says, standards, norms or ethics somehow changed in the last 40 years, and while it’s wrong now to hunt sharks, it simply wasn’t wrong then. Humans can rationalise anything.

The Killers deals with the sharks primarily associated with fatalities around the Australasian coastline. This section is weaker as there is a fair amount of speculation, but descriptions of the different kinds of sharks’ behaviour from those who have observed them extensively over the years are interesting. Reid also examines shark bites by geographic location (the states of Australia).

The remainder of the book deals with shark bites – tales of those who have survived an encounter with a shark, and of those less fortunate. The latter section in particular is gruesome and slightly tedious – after a while (as in Twelve Days of Terror) one is numbed by all the descriptions of gore. The final section is an assortment of interesting oddments, such as the mystery of an unidentified man’s arm that was found inside a shark.

When we attended Christopher Neff’s talk at the Save Our Seas Foundation, he spoke about Victor Coppleson, an Australian surgeon also mentioned in this book who crusaded to change the then-popular phrase “shark incident” or “shark accident” to “shark attack”, publishing a book on the subject in 1962. He developed the rogue shark theory, as well as theories as to when sharks attack, many of which have not stood up to scientific scrutiny. Australia (and the Australian media) has been at the epicentre of much shark-related hysteria and  a bit of common sense over the past 80 years, and it was fascinating to read about the different responses to the numerous human-shark interactions that have occurred around the Australian coast. There is a culture of water use in Australia – surfing and swimming have been popular recreational activities for decades – but there does not seem to be a coherent, government-supported response to the problem of human-shark interactions. The problem has not gone away, and only recently there was talk of a shark cull in western Australia after a couple of unfortunate interactions with surfers and swimmers.

Despite the unfortunate first impression made by the cover and title, there is much to think about upon completion of this book, and I must say I gleaned a little more understanding of my parents’ generation and their view of the natural world by reading the interviews in the initial section.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here or here if you’re not.

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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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