I spent this evening hanging out with shark bite victims at a film screening for a program which will air on The Discovery Channel later this summer.
Oddly enough, most people attacked by the grizzly bears of the ocean wind up becoming shark advocates and conservationists afterwards. This leads me to theorize that sharks actually possess an unknown venom which enters survivors’ bloodstreams and makes them want to defend and empathize with sharks.
Would you want to preserve sharks if one of them bit your leg off? I sure as hell wouldn’t. I would track down the offending shark, harpoon it, then fashion all of its teeth into arrow heads and bow hunt more sharks from a helicopter.
Actually it turns out that this is similar to what my favorite shark bite victim, Al Brenekka, wound up doing. Back in the 1970’s a shark bit Al’s arm off. So, for a few years, Al dedicated himself to the very satisfying hobby of aquatic revenge. He spent his free time stalking the ocean and killing sharks, in order to collect the debt they accrued through dismembering him.
One day he managed to capture a hammer head shark, and it took him a solid hour and a half to kill it. During this epic struggle the shark managed to earn Al’s respect. Gradually this respect shifted into curiosity.
This makes sense, of course. Sharks are fascinating. Who hasn’t heard of Shark Week? And the random factoids surrounding these deadly fish continue to astound me. Having seen many years of Shark Week myself, I’m no longer spell-bound by their Porsche-defying speeds or ability to sense the bio-electric fields produced by all living creatures.
Most recently I’ve been fascinated by shark mating habits. Male sharks have two penises. They’re called “claspers,” which sounds disturbingly sadomasochistic, but the term is misleading because during intercourse their two willies actually fuse together to form a semen duct. Weird.
Some species of sharks have been known to reproduce through parthenogenesis, which is to say, without a dude involved. When devoid of males, certain lady sharks simply will themselves pregnant. (I find parthenogenesis particularly horrifying, because if homo sapien women ever learn that trick my own bumbling gender will rapidly find itself superfluous.) Some sharks stay pregnant for up to a year.
I don’t know what specifically fascinated Al about sharks. I didn’t ask him about the double shark penis thing, because it’s very daunting to query a panel of folks with bionic limbs about shark cocks over a microphone. Whatever the issue, Al became captivated by sharks, and then sympathetic to their plight. Now he spends his time trying to save them, by capturing and tagging them for scientific and conservation purposes.
At least in Asia, anyway. China, Japan and Thailand are the biggest slurpers of shark fin soup on the planet. Hong Kong accounts for roughly fifty percent of the shark fin trade (although to be fair, they also export fins to other shark-hungry countries, many outside of Asia). As China’s middle class rises, so to does its insatiable appetite for shark fins.
Presently we humans eat a about 100 million sharks per year.
Or their fins, anyway. Huge trawlers plow through the ocean, scoop up sharks, cut their fins off and then plop the bleeding, dismembered fish back into the sea to die. Ghastly.
It’s double unfair when you consider that sharks actually find us quite unpleasant tasting. If sharks actually enjoyed eating people I wouldn’t feel guilty about snacking on a hammerhead. As it is, the discerning palate of sharks scoffs at manflesh; our blood leaves a wretched aftertaste.
This is largely evidenced by the fact that people never get eaten by sharks. They get bitten. Lacking other exploratory mechanisms like fingers or Google, sharks pretty much have to rely on smell and biting stuff to satiate any curiosity they might have.
So if you vaguely look like a seal, or you’re thrashing around quite a bit, or some jackass on the beach is playing the theme from Jaws on his cello, a shark might come up and give you an “exploratory bite.” Which will immediately sever your leg, hand, torso, etc. Then they usually spit the offending mouthful out, because it tastes foul. (A small consolation to the poor person just bisected by a shark, who is shooting blood in every direction like a crimson sprinkler system.)
Shark attacks are insanely rare, however. On average there are 100 shark attacks per year. Of them, generally about seventeen people die by bleeding to death.
To put that in perspective for you, more people are killed by feral pigs (wild boars) than by sharks annually. Every year two dozen people will be felled by errant champagne corks, mostly at weddings.
Twenty people will die from escalator mishaps. Astoundingly, coconuts will polish off 150 mortals this year, as the fruit can plummet at a speed of fifty miles per hour before cracking a human skull open. (If Newton had studied in Jamaica, the Theory of Gravity could have been delayed by a century or more.)
Most impressively, since its invention in 1998, more than 5,000 men have died from Viagra complications. Imagine the staggering mortality numbers if human anatomy had two thumpers, like sharks.
So you needn’t fear sharks. In fact you should fear for them, because sharks are “apex predators,” which means if we hunt them to extinction for menu appetizer purposes, the entire aquatic ecosystem collapses.
Also, sharks are awesome. Ipso facto. Even shark bite victims will tell you that.
So please, don’t eat shark fin soup. Request “shark-flavored” soy products instead.
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.