Steven Spielberg did for sharks what Gerald Ratner later achieved for jewellery appreciation. But 40 years after Jaws sent us scurrying for the shoreline a subtle rebranding is underway. The three-part series shatters many of the clichés surrounding sharks.
And it’s not a moment too soon. Last year, sharks killed a total of three people across the world. In the same 12 months, we killed 100 million of them. Yes, you read that right: 100 million. “It’s simply unsustainable,” says Steve Greenwood, who’s spent the past two years making a new series for the BBC.
“Sharks take a long time to reach sexual maturity and are slow to reproduce. If they continue to be killed on these levels it’s a matter of simple arithmetic – it won’t be long before they start becoming extinct.”
The three-part series shatters many of the clichés surrounding sharks. “They are caring, sociable and highly intelligent creatures,” says Greenwood. “It’s time we started cherishing them.” Here he describes some of their more unusual characteristics.
Beneath the Arctic icecaps swims the Greenland shark, one of the largest and, at risk of anthropomorphising, saddest sharks. Though these slow- swimming, 25ft long creatures are found in cold waters all over the world, those that inhabit the Arctic are almost totally blind: a parasite attaches itself to the shark’s eyeball and feeds off the surface of the cornea. “It is thought they could live for up to 200 years, which is a long time to be swimming around blind,” says Greenwood.
Like its manta cousin, the mobula ray is a member of the shark family. It’s also one of the ocean’s most flamboyant show-offs. Unrestrained by its size, the ray leaps acrobatically out of the water in an apparent theatrical demonstration of its virility. “The science is still quite new, but it’s thought to be some form of courtship,” says Greenwood. “The bigger the splash, the more attention it creates and the higher up the mate-seeking hierarchy it moves.”
Port Jackson shark
It may not have the streamlined elegance of some of its cousins, but what the Port Jackson shark lacks in looks it makes up for in ingenuity. The teeth are like grinding plates that crush its mollusc prey, while its eggs suggest real evolutionary cunning. Says Greenwood: “The eggs are as big as the shark’s head and shaped like corkscrews, which makes them easier to lodge between rocks to prevent them being swept away. It’s genius.”
There’s nothing about its appearance that suggests the epaulette shark is anything special. That is, until you see it walk. Yes, walk. Living close to shore it frequently becomes stranded at low tide. Death for any other fish, but not the epaulette; it uses its fins and waddles out to the water. Scientists are more impressed by its ability to survive without oxygen. “In humans, such oxygen deprivation would case massive damage to organs, so there’s real interest for us in understanding how they do that,” says Greenwood.
Ragged tooth shark
The ragged tooth shark is an elegant and effortless predator — skills it learns while still in the uterus. In an act known as intrauterine cannibalism, one shark embryo will consume of all its siblings — as many as 50 — before birth. “In purely evolutionary terms it makes sense,” says Greenwood. “Once the shark pops out it is already an experienced hunter.”
If research into the swellshark yields the much hoped-for results, it surely will be at the front of the queue for a new name – no longer merely “swell”. A protein in the shark’s skin causes it to glow a vivid fluorescent green and scientists are hopeful that this process could be applied to humans to help track killer cancer cells. “It would open a whole new toolbox in the fight against cancer,” says marine biologist David Gruber. “You’ll be able to follow the cancer cells as they move around the body. It could be a real game changer.”