Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Sharks inspire hyped-up
fears in landlubbers

During a recent sailing trip, one of the guys on my boat kept bringing up the subject of sharks.

"Relax, Josh," I said to this mainland visitor as we prepared to go snorkeling. "Sharks don't like to eat people."

"They don't?"

"Well, there are millions of people in the water here each year and very few incidents."

"But people get attacked."

"They do, occasionally."

"Then why aren't any of you afraid of them?"

My two crew members, Hawaii residents, and I stared at one another blankly. "Only tourists are afraid of sharks," I joked.

That's not true, of course. I've met lots of residents who won't poke a toe in the water for fear of sharks. And there are plenty of visitors who don't worry at all about these much-maligned fish.

Still, the subject of shark attacks comes up more often among visitors than residents. Most of us who spend time in the ocean here don't think much about sharks.

This fact hit home recently when I was recounting my recent boat adventure of jumping into the water off Makapuu to free a snagged line. "I could never do that," a non-ocean friend commented. "I'd be scared half to death of sharks."

I was scared half to death of several things while swimming out there, but sharks were not one of them. While diving beneath that pitching, rolling hull on that windy day, those fish never once entered my mind.

After teasing Josh a little, my friends and I discussed why we oceangoers aren't afraid of sharks while snorkeling and diving in Hawaii. My first mate, Scott, came up with a good reason: It's hard to be scared of something that's not there. We aren't afraid of sharks because we go in the water over and over and never see any.

Well, almost never. When we do see a shark in the main islands, it's usually a distant view of its backside because the uninterested fish is leaving.

The other times we might see sharks here are in marine sanctuaries where they live the way they evolved to live: minding their own business and eating within their own niches.

For white-tipped reef sharks, which live, among other places, in Hanauma Bay, their niche is inside caves and eating creatures that hide in the reef. White-tips cause no problems at the bay, nor do any other shark species.

This fact, however, didn't matter to an Australia visitor who told Scott, a volunteer at Hanauma, last week that managers should string a barrier net across the bay's mouth. "If this was Australia," he said, "there'd be a net out there to protect people."

Those nets might (or might not) keep out the great whites that hang around some parts of Australia, but they do snag and drown dolphins, a fact currently causing controversy in that country.

Some people will never get over their fear of sharks, but not Josh. He believed what we told him and snorkeled comfortably in Maui's Honalua Bay for the rest of the day.

I thought about that this week when, smiling, I started a piece of fiction with the sentence, "We fed Jimmy's body to the sharks."

Don't tell Josh.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.



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