Who would have thought when author Peter Benchley wrote the book Jaws in 1974, that it would change people’s perception of sharks forever? And how many times has a grizzly scene from the iconic Spielberg movie popped into your head when you’ve entered the sea for a dip? The latest Hollywood blockbuster to pit a man against a fearsome fish, The Meg, stars Jason Statham grappling with a giant prehistoric shark, but in reality, today’s sharks have far more reason to be scared of us humans, than we do of them. DAD.info speaks to presenter and author Tom Hird, AKA the Blowfish – the world’s first (and possibly only!) heavy metal marine biologist – to find out why…
DAD.info: The Meg looks like a fun film with some OTT shark action, but do films like this and Jaws give the public a skewed impression of shark behaviour?
Tom: Yes, shark films always display sharks as hunting for humans. Admittedly this is where the thrill comes from, but it is also factually incorrect. Hippos kill more people every year than sharks do, around 3,000 people a year actually. Yet I don’t think anyone is queuing up to watch MegaHippo Attacks at the cinema. These films never show the truth about sharks, only a myth about what we fear the most.
DAD.info: As a marine biologist, you’ve been close-up and personal many times with sharks – what are they really like?
Tom: Sharks are incredible, majestic, powerful, but also alive! I know that may seem obvious, but when you dive with sharks, you see and feel their real behaviours. You see how they react to other sharks, how they react to you. You can feel that they are intelligent and cautious animals. I’ve never been scared diving with sharks, not once, but I have seen sharks (a four-metre-long tiger shark to be exact) be very afraid of me.
DAD.info: The Meg actually existed, didn’t it? Why did such an awesome predator go extinct?
Tom: Yes. The Megalodon – or carcharocles megalodon – is an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 23 to 2.6 million years ago. It’s very hard for us to completely pinpoint a single reason why Meg died out, it was a combination of events but essentially, it got too big for it’s fins! Fossil remains of megalodon suggest that some reached lengths of 18 meters (59 feet). They preyed on whales as food, and as other large predatory whales appeared, Meg found itself with competition. The climate changed and with that, food sources shifted and changed, which had a knock on effect up the ladder to the Megs’ prey. It’s also believed that the shallow, warmer waters where megalodon would have given birth became unsafe for its offspring. Perhaps changes in climate meant predators could now access them, or maybe the waters were too warm. We can’t be 100% sure, but from what we do know, its food source was diminishing, it had too much competition and its offspring were not making it to adulthood.
DAD.info: What are the main misconceptions about sharks?
Tom: The major misconception is the idea that sharks are out to kill humans, and that any shark that sees you will attack you. I don’t think the general public know much more about sharks than that, so it’s kinda stuck in the mud right there.
DAD.info: What are the main threats they face?
Tom: Overfishing is decimating shark populations worldwide. Some species have seen an estimated 70-90% drop in population since the 1970s. That’s quite insane! That would be the same as changing the population of London to that of Blackpool in 30 odd years. Sharks are caught either as by-catch where they are the unwanted target of other fisheries, or more disturbingly, targeted directly for their fins which are shipped to Asia, where they’re used to make shark fin soup, which is still considered a delicacy.
DAD.info: How and why did you start working with sharks?
Tom: Like so many people I know, I was terrified by the film Jaws at a young age. My way of controlling my fear was to learn more about sharks, and even then I knew they needed our help. My marine biology degree put me in a decent position to work with all marine life, and time spent working in aquariums was where I first laid proper hands on shark biology. Since then, I’ve worked with The Shark Trust to help educate, entertain and protect sharks in the UK and around the world.
DAD.info: What’s been your most exciting shark encounter?
Tom: Hand feeding Caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas was special, really special. The sharks were so eager to get at the bait they would swarm all over you, nosing you and bumping up into your chest to get a nibble of fish. It was like feeding a pack of friendly dogs their afternoon biscuits. But my most incredible encounter was in Mozambique where I dived with a four-metre female tiger shark. It’s hard to put it into words, but when I first jumped in and sank deep below the surface, I remember looking up and she was silhouetted against the sun. This perfect black shape that I’d seen a million times in books and on documentaries, but this time, I was there! I held onto a line deployed from the boat and just watched her as she investigated us and when she came up to me, I could just feel the intelligence, the awareness in her. She was intrigued by our company. She was totally beautiful.
DAD.info: Will our changing climate mean we’ll be seeing more big sharks in UK waters, and what will that mean for holidaymakers?
Tom: We don’t know exactly what effect a changing climate might truly have on the species in our waters, but recently released research pinpointed five species that could be spotted around the UK as temperatures rise, including hammerheads, black tips, copper, sand tiger and big-eyed thresher sharks. We already have the second-largest shark in the world as a UK resident, the basking shark – although it’s a completely harmless filter feeder – so it’s tough to go bigger than that! We also already see mako and porbeagle sharks, both relatives of the great white, as well as the sinuously sexy blue shark, which have been sighted a lot in Cornwall this year, which is exciting. Around 22 species make their home in the UK, so it’s not like we don’t have enough here already! I don’t think we will get a particular increase in shark numbers – sadly there is just too much fishing around our coasts, and combined with the factory fishing vessels from the EU nations, it’s stripped a lot of our local coastal seas bare. Sharks need food, and we don’t really have anything decent for them anymore. Holidaymakers need not worry, in fact they would do well to remember that the largest great white shark ever landed was caught in the Med! Sharks are global, they were here before us, and hopefully they will be here after we’re gone. Just enjoy your holiday and let them do their thing.
DAD.info: What can our readers do to help conserve sharks?
Tim: The main thing is to care – care about sharks. That’s what myself and many others are always fighting: people’s misconceptions about these incredible animals. Join The Shark Trust, a UK charity which does some incredible work, including a Great Eggcase hunt, where you can go down on the beach (with your little ones) collecting egg cases – AKA mermaids’ purses – and report back to the charity. With that information, they can draw up detailed plans on which beaches act as breeding areas for certain species. Protecting the oceans in general also makes a big difference: if sharks have plenty of food and clean water, they will thrive. So think about supporting the Marine Conservation Society, only eat sustainably caught fish, recycle your waste, cut your plastic usage and never, never, ever buy shark souvenirs, or support businesses and restaurants which profit from shark fins.
DAD.info: Lastly, “a heavy metal marine biologist”? Discuss!
Tom: Ha! Well, I think it’s all in my delivery. I’ve been working in the world of science communication since I was 16, and it’s given me a hell of a lot of experience in “Speaking Science”. I’ve never struggled to convey my message, whether it be the function of gills or the awesome power of a rattlesnake strike, and I love nothing more than getting excited over new ideas and old biological mainstays. I work with live animals on live shows, and always get stuck in and perform my own stunts. I’m basically very passionate about bringing the seemingly boring or mundane to the fore and blowing the lid clean off to expose the REAL truths behind the science and showing that small can be mighty, so I guess that makes me a bit metal – although others might just call it crazy…
The Meg, starring Jason Statham, is in cinemas now.