Reflections on shark demystification.
Aich, R.S. (2021). Jaws and beauty, reflections on Great White Shark demystification. Academia
Letters, Article 2869. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL2869
As a marine social scientist, for the better part of the last decade, my life has been ‘submerged’
in the idea and image of sharks (in particular white sharks- Carcharodon carcharias) and how
we interact with them symbolically and physically. It has been a privilege to academically
investigate and interact with people globally on this topic from scientists to the mass population,
adults, children, fisher people, and people from land lock regions who only know of
them by their image presented in the media. For what it is worth, here I reflect on the current
efforts of white shark demystification and the possible steps forward.
Sharks were considered to be villains of the sea as much as cultural totems from ancient times (Jøn & Aich, 2015), but in the 20th / 21st century the world was ready for a monster that could exist in reality, and in 1975, they found that with Jaws. In my book Iridescent skin (Aich, In press), I argue, the current image of Great White Sharks in the public imagination is a hyperreal avatar of white shark the fish, where the image is grander than the real fish. In the post-Jaws era, this image has been kept alive and has proliferated through various media content and has created billion-dollar industries- like television, movies, and tourism. However, this negative image has devastating effects on their conservation efforts (Neff, 2015; Neff & Yang, 2013), and hence on their numbers in the global oceans, like many other species of sharks (Carne, 2019; Ebert et al., 2015; Queiroz et al., 2019; Roff et al., 2018; Simpfendorfer et al., 2011). Consequently, there is an immediate need to demystify them. Lately, there have been efforts to demystify sharks with experts promoting two primary avenues. Firstly, challenging disinformation about their behavior and attack possibilities, and public education initiatives. Secondly, arguing the significance of having direct controlled encounters with them in their natural environment through shark tourism (Apps et al., 2016, 2018; Dobson, 2007; Friedrich et al., 2014), which in the case of white sharks is achieved generally through cage diving. However, although both of these avenues are pertinent, there may be value in rethinking them. Regarding firsthand encounters, I do agree that meeting white sharks in the ocean through cage diving does help alter tourist’s attitude towards them. In my fieldwork with white shark
cage diving in New Zealand, I quantitatively and qualitatively demonstrated that even longterm divers came to the boat with the baggage of the monstrous white shark image. Consequently, when they met them, there was a cognitive dissonance between the image and the
actual fish. Furthermore, their friends and family who came with them also had a profound effect on their perception (Aich, In press), however, there are some questions to be raised. Firstly, it is only the people who were interested in meeting the sharks who came to see them and had a more favorable opinion about the sharks and the marine environment than the general population in the first place. Furthermore, cage diving is the avenue through with white sharks photographic and videographic images are created and distributed- focusing on the sharks lunging at the bait or biting the cage. This created image is still so potent, even the same industries that promote demystification, often use the same ‘monster’ tropes to attract customers, be it cage diving, books, television shows, or documentaries.
The most important question is, did mere dis-information create this image? In my book, I explored how it is a combination of multiple factors from their behavioral and aesthetic traits and the environment they hunt in- which tapped into our instinctual fears. The shark was
merely the right vessel to commodify our primal dread of the unknown, hence it had such a long-lasting cognitive effect in mass consciousness (Aich, In press). To counter that, yes, it is pivotal to spread unbiased and factual knowledge, however, the more I contemplate, Dostoevsky’s words come back to me ‘Beauty will save the world’ (Dostoyevsky & Arad, 2004). If the image was not created from misinformation, how do we expect merely information to change it? The argument is, if you love or find something beautiful you tend to take care of it. Is love related only to the data and information we have about something/someone? Or is it related to our emotional connection with them, often beyond objective reasoning? Furthermore, there is some indication that emotion has more effects on decision making than cognition (Dolan, 2002; Schwarz, 2000; Shiv & Fedorikhin, 1999). Hence, in my humble opinion, I believe, the key is love and beauty. In my communications I have found, when I shared the sense of beauty through my visual art, writings, and expressions, it had more effect on people’s feeling towards sharks, than the data I provided. Similarly in cage diving practices of New Zealand, I found in most of the cases, people who came to see them came because of love, love of their family and friends, the marine environment, and for a fish which they had not even seen before. And when they did encounter them, that love often overflowed, through their tears shared with family, laughter with friends, and kisses among partners. We have to first understand and acknowledge the deep-rooted reasoning of our fear of them, and from that create a culture of dialogue to heal our scared minds. Maybe approach it as social cognitive behaviour therapy, starting from small groups of individuals at all ages, then to the mass society. Maybe we have to share our stories and images of them emphasizing their beauty, and our love, admiration, and cultural relationships with them and the marine environment. There are knowledge and emotion that cannot be communicated only through verbal communication, which has to be hence expressed through art, abstract and sensory expressions. A lot can be lost in translation when one is trying to communicate something verbally, that was not perceived and imagined verbally. Hence art, and sensory expressions which express our emotions need to have a lot more pivotal role to play in shark demystification and public education initiatives. There may be a need to demystify the shark ‘experts’ too. The experts often create an ‘adventurer’ image because they work with sharks (Particularly who are media inclined), consciously or subconsciously. So much so, I must reflect, that I am using the same trope of Jaws in this article title, because of the attention it generates, and I have used the same strategies of personal image creation to promote myself and my work too. Often in ‘shark’ seminars, experts talk with experts, which is important, however, in my limited observation, it does not allow inclusive discussions, and at times put them at a pedestal away from the general population. Maybe it is important to ask the experts not to take merely the knowledge-based approach and preach to people about the importance of sharks and the statistical probability of shark attacks. More than preaching maybe it is about sharing, our fear, and our sense of beauty, more than mere scientific knowledge, maybe the path is personal emotional connections. We are at the verge of a dialectical change in shark image creation and distribution, helmed by artists and scientists. Much like negative photographic images produced of sharks from practices like cage diving, more images of sharks have now been, and should be taken, edited, and shared in the public domain which focuses on the calmness of the demeanor of the sharks and human-shark interaction. These images may be the antithesis of the ferocious man-eater image produced by the general media. They may focus on their aesthetic beauty and inquisitiveness
about the humans, rather than always on the open jaw. There is immediate necessity to rethink composition, lighting, context and even music involve in shark related media content [For example refer to my sensory documentary (Aich, 2020)]. As long as some organizations
and individuals intentionally produce and distribute images of the sharks focused on their aggression, there is the need for images that focus on the alternative perspective, thankfully we are seeing that more and more. Finally, it is about time to discuss governmental and private intervention with some form of censorship or at least strong disclaimers when videos, images, and stories of shark-filled with misinformation are shared in mass media. In the recent past, some social media groups have put disclaimers of ‘potentially misleading’ information, in case of ‘alternate facts’ in America. We have seen, the care that is taken about being sensitive while creating and disseminating content about certain religious or social groups, and disclaimers on use of cigarette on TV, and even violent acts- because they have real life impact. Similarly, why should there not be disclaimers about the misinformation that is spread through this hyperreal image of sharks in media which is potentially related to devastating effect on an apex species- which in turn affects the global marine ecosystem? There has to be a governmental push in shark demystification as much as policy to stop finning and unregulated fishing, which again is part of the loop that there needs to be shark demystification to alter people’s negative attitude towards them so they can lobby governments to do such. This has been merely my experience and opinion about the topic, and a lot of well constructed research must be conducted to understand what is really needed here. Factual education and direct encounter with sharks in controlled environments undeniably have positive effects on people’s attitude towards sharks. However, perhaps, the next step for shark demystification is personal emotional connections, and imbibing cultural, local, and native knowledge expressed through art, sensory expressions, and fables, perhaps more. However, one thing that is certain, concerns with demystification must be addressed strategically, and can no longer be at the fringes of species conservation efforts. There is an immediate need for more transdisciplinary multipronged research labs working on this specifically. The simple fact is white sharks, and other such apex predators are invariable parts of the global marine ecosystems, we do not have the privilege anymore to take their image and its effect on the holistic natural world lightly, and there is a need for immediate accountability!