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Myth Busters: Real facts about sharks

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.

The reality is that these majestic creatures, which have been around for 450 million years, are often misunderstood and feared for the wrong reasons. Whilst it is true that sharks are the top predator of the marine ecosystem, they mainly prey on old, sick and slower fish to keep prey populations healthy.

There are over 400 species of sharks around the world, 170 of them are found in Australian waters, with more than 50 species calling the coast of Queensland their home.

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 are busting myths with these real shark facts.

Myth #1: Sharks have humans on the menu.

Sharks circling | shark factsFact: 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.

Great white sharks eat 11 tonnes of food every year, while humans eat about half a tonne during that same period of time. While any shark attack is a distressing unfortunate incident there simply haven’t been enough attacks on humans alone to quench their appetites. 

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 19cm long, to the Whale Shark at over 15m 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.

tiger shark | shark factsFact: 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.

Sharks are typically known for their big pearly whites but the average shark has 40-45 teeth which they constantly shed and replace. Some lose up the 35,000 teeth in their lifetime.

Whale Sharks are becoming more common in the Coral Sea, and while these huge beasts can open their mouths up over 4m wide they 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 seabed.

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 are a superfood.

Black tip reef sharks | Shark Facts

Photo by @jamesvodicka via IG

Fact: Much like rhino horn, bear bile and tiger claws there are no proven medicinal benefits to consuming shark fin. They certainly won’t boost sexual potency, enhance skin quality, increase one’s Qi or energy, prevent heart disease, and lower cholesterol. Shark fins taste of very little, being pure gristle and sinew- hardly appetising.

Shark finning is a major worldwide problem with tens 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 safeguard breeding grounds and nursery areas for many species resulting in a healthy population of all sharks on the reef.

Queensland’s shark species and where to find them

Seeing a shark is one thing, but being able to go swimming alongside one is a completely different experience. It will get your heart-racing, adrenaline pumping and make for great stories to share with family and friends.

Here in Queensland, you get the chance to do just that. With such a diverse shark population, you could be swimming with the world’s largest whale sharks, or with some of the smaller resident sharks such as the spotted wobbegong or leopard shark.

Want to see sharks up close in person? Use the dive sites guide to plan your close encounters.

Sharks in shallows | Shark facts

Photo by @jamesvodicka via IG

  • Great White Sharks – This is perhaps one of the more famous shark species thanks to the film industry. Their average length is 4.6m but can grow as long as 6m. They have a white underbelly from which their name comes from and due to their streamlined shape and powerful tails, they can propel themselves through the water at speeds over 60km an hour. You’ll find these in deeper water and can be seen out of Moreton Bay.
  • Grey Nurse – Grey nurse sharks are a schooling fish and are often found in a group of five or more in the same place at the same time. Their long, sharp protruding teeth often give them a fierce appearance which may make them seem like a ‘man-eater’ however this is not the case. You’ll find them in deep sandy-bottomed gutters or rocky caves, in the vicinity of inshore rocky reefs and islands.
  • Grey Reef Shark – They are often found inshore and offshore north of Brisbane and up along the east coast, normally found cruising around reefs and shoals. They love the warmer and shallow waters.
  • Hammerhead – These are one of the most easily recognisable sharks out there. They are characterised by their distinct hammer-shaped head with wide eyes, giving them a better visual range than most sharks. They can be seen in big groups during summer migration as they prefer must cooler waters.
  • Leopard Sharks  – These are a stunning sight with leopard-like spots over their backs that you will usually spot while they’re lying around on a sandy patch of the ocean floor. Spot these beauties off the coast of Brisbane and in some sites at the Gold Coast.
  • Spotted Wobbegongs – These are pretty common along the coastline but you’ll need to look carefully as they are experts in camouflaging with the surrounding reef and sand. You’ll find them along the reefs in Brisbane all the way up to the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Tiger Sharks – These stripped sharks can be found in North Queensland by the Coral Sea. They have excellent eyesight, taste and smell and are able to use its hooked tail to rapidly catch prey.
  • Whale Sharks – They have been spotted on the Great Barrier Reef in Tropical North Queensland. You simply cannot miss them – they are just huge! But don’t fret if you see one – unless you are plankton – as this is all they’re interested in eating!
  • Whitetip Reef Shark – You’ll find these on a dive along much of the coast North of Gladstone. These reef hunters love to eat octopus and reef fish. They have a recognisable white tip on their dorsal fin.

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.

Want to maximise your Great Barrier Reef experience? Use this handy ebook.

Friend or foe: what is your perception of sharks?