Grey Reef Shark patrols Osprey Reef. Photo: Jayne Jenkins.
Sharks: They’re not the prettiest fish in the sea, but they’re also not as scary as you might think! Most divers rejoice in spotting one while some swimmers won’t dare to go more than ankle-deep in the surf for fear of attack.
But whichever way you look at it, sharks are a really important part of the marine eco-system. Without them, other species can over-populate reefs resulting in a total breakdown of the natural feeding hierarchy.
We decided to break down five common shark tales to sort the fact from the fiction.
Myth #1: Sharks have humans on the menu.
Fact: Sharks hunt using their sensory systems not their eyesight (which is pretty terrible). They’ll often hunt in river-mouths, murky water and at sunrise or sunset and will bump their prey before attacking it.
To a shark, a surfer can look just like a seal from below – one of the favourite snacks of larger, temperate water shark species.
Myth #2: Any shark is a bad shark.
Fact: Around the world there are over 500 species of sharks, some tiny, like the Dwarf Lantern Shark at 19 centimeters long, to the Whale Shark at over 15 metres in length.
Some live at the very bottom of the ocean and some are surface feeders, but almost all will swim away from you when approached.
On the Great Barrier Reef there are eight different species of sharks, and only two of these have ever been known to attack humans. There is an infinitesimally small chance of ever seeing one, let alone it threatening you!
Myth #3: Sharks are man-eaters, full-stop.
Fact: Not every shark eats large prey. Whitetip, Blacktip and Lemon Sharks, most commonly found on the Great Barrier Reef, survive on small fish no bigger than your hand. They’re easy to catch and you’ll often see them hunting in the shallow waters around the reefs where they can be easily cornered.
Whale Sharks are becoming more common in the Coral Sea, and these huge beasts survive on plankton alone!
Myth #4: Sharks will die if they stop swimming.
Fact: Sharks propel themselves forward to breathe, well most of them anyway. But there are some, like Leopard Sharks, who have the ability to pump water through their body and over their gills whilst they rest on the sea bed.
Swimming through the water provides the best way for a shark to breathe but they can relax and take in the view too!
Myth #5: Shark fins will boost sexual potency, enhance skin quality, increase one’s Qi or energy, prevent heart disease, and lower cholesterol.
Shark finning is a major worldwide problem with ten of millions being killed every year to supply the lucrative Asian food industry. They’re often caught, have their fins sliced off and are thrown back into the water alive, with the fisherman keeping only what he needs.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park offers a high level of protection for all shark species. It’s broken up into zones that safe-guard breeding grounds and nursery areas for many species resulting in a healthy population of all sharks on the reef.
The vast majority of tourism operators help the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) with a monitoring program called ‘Eye on the Reef’. Sightings of iconic species are recorded every time they are witnessed and sent to GBRMPA, giving a valuable insight into what happens with shark populations along the length of this World Heritage Site.