30 April 2016

White Sharks Can't Jump: A 19th-Century Look at Sharks

The perception of sharks as 'mindless man-eaters' has changed considerably in recent decades (well, in most places outside Hollywood back lots and the Western Australian parliament). Their vital role in marine ecosystems is better understood, and despite the headline-grabbing shark-attack deaths and maimings of recent years, they are generally no longer presented as murderous monsters. These enlightened attitudes, however, are not as modern as we might think.

The article below was published in Queensland newspapers back in 1898, and is surprisingly sympathetic in its depiction of sharks, describing them as not being as dangerous as many thought. It contains some rather interesting anecdotes, a few misconceptions ('sharks can't jump'), and a plea for a better understanding of the much-maligned creatures.

'Capture of a large shark at Brighton, Victoria'. 'Sharks have lately become so numerous in Port Phillip and Hobson's bays, that the government has issued a scale of fees to those who can capture any of these unpleasant inhabitants of our waters.' (Illustrated Sydney News, 26 May 1877).


Many people will doubtless be surprised to hear that there is anything to be said in favour of the shark. The Squalidæ have so long been subject to cruelty only possible to ignorant prejudice that the very name of shark is a synonym for anything rapacious, unscrupulous, and wholly detestable. A few half-hearted attempts have been made at intervals of centuries to stem the flood of hatred, but they have been overwhelmed by the torrent of falsehood in the shape of anecdotes which has been steadily flowing for so many generations.

It is hardly too much to say that no creature known to man has continued so long under the stigma of ancient fabrications as the shark. Anecdotes which if told of any other animal would have been laughed into oblivion centuries ago are still current about him. One is amazed to find in ancient records tales which, originally invented about natural things under the influence of superstitious terror, are manifestly the source of modern shark yarns. The perpetuation of these fables in the case of the shark is perhaps in some slight degree excusable. Men who have had the most ample opportunities for observation have culpably neglected them, and it is absurd to expect professors of natural history to be seamen and fishermen. Their duties are engrossing enough as it is, without expecting them to become personally acquainted with the creatures they classify each in his own proper habitat. But seamen generally might render splendid aid to science by noting with careful watchfulness the characteristic habits of marine creatures with which they come in contact. They might also refuse to tell stories, which they could each prove to lie untrue, merely because they have heard them from their boyhood.

One of the most firmly held beliefs concerning sharks is that they prefer the flesh of man to any other food. Now the fact is (says Mr. Frank T. Bullen in the Spectator) that the shark family, with few exceptions, are naturally eaters of offal - scavengers of the sea. They are the only large fish that perform this most useful function. As a rule the duty of devouring the innumerable dead things which would otherwise pollute the sea devolves upon the crustacea. But the omnivorous Squalidæ, with their enormous stomachs, abnormal powers of digestion, and apparently insatiable appetites, patrol the waters for carrion that floats, thereby lightening the labours of the toiling workers at the bottom. In consequence of this prowling habit they are often near the surface where men may be unfortunate enough to fall in their way. Then, if the human animal be unskilful and timid, he will most probably be devoured by sharks, not because he is a man, but because he represents easily, obtainable food. For the shark, though a swift enough swimmer, is handicapped by the peculiar position of his mouth. Under ordinary conditions there are no fish so slow of movement that they cannot escape while the unwieldy Squalus is bringing his body into position to bite. Even man, when well accustomed to the water and to the limitations of sharks, can always successfully elude them.

As to their preference for blacks, it is a pure myth without the faintest foundation in fact. In many places visited by the writer where sharks were the commonest of fish black men were constantly swimming and diving without paying apparently any heed to the hungry monsters in their immediate vicinity. Yet never one of them was injured.

During the 'cutting in' of a whale at Hapai the water near the carcase was literally boiling with the largest existing anywhere. It seemed probable that before the blubber was all stripped the ravening monsters, many of them fully as long as one of our whaleboats, would have eaten a costly proportion of it, so energetic were they. At the same time, the natives hovering round in their canoes were constantly in and out of the water, actually among the sharks, heeding them no more than as if they had been so many sprats. On several occasions it has also been the writer's doubtful privilege to spend hours in the water clinging to fragments of broken boats in the immediate vicinity of a dead whale. And although one's legs always felt insecure, every touch seeming to promise their instant loss, casualties of that kind never happened.

Nor among the countless stories of the whale-fishery current among South Sea men has the writer ever heard of a man being seized by sharks when in the water near a dead whale. As to the prowess of these monsters, and the numbers of them that congregate wherever food is to be had, it may be interesting to record the following fact:- We had killed a large bull humpback (megaptera) in shoal water near Tongatabu, which sank at death. Unable to raise it for want of gear, that night one boat remained on the spot while the others returned on board. In less than one hour from the sinking of the carcase there were, at the lowest computation, 500 large sharks around the place. Many of them were so huge that we could hardly persuade ourselves that they were sharks at all, but that we knew no other fish of such a size existed. One, especially, that gave the boat a resounding blow with his tail as he turned beneath us, was larger in girth than she was, and as nearly as possible of the same length. Now, our boat was 3ft. 6in. beam amidships, and 28ft. long. Nevertheless. I am perfectly sure that this shark, vast as it was, could not possibly have swallowed a man, the shape and size of his mouth absolutely forbidding such an idea. He could have eaten several men no doubt, but swallow them whole, never. But to return. When at break of day we succeeded in raising the carcase again to the surface, amidst the foaming tumult caused by the still ravening multitude, more than half of it was gone. At least 40 tons of solid flesh and blubber had been devoured in a few hours.

Another story which has been repeated in nearly every natural history or article on sharks is of an alleged practice of slaving captains. They are said to have suspended the body of a negro from bowsprit or yardarm in order to enjoy the sight of the sharks leaping up at it, which they are said to have done to the height of 20ft. But a shark does not leap out of water at all. Neither if it did could it bite while so doing, for the simple reason that to do so it must be over its prey if right side up, or under it if on its back. A glance at a shark will instantly disprove this oft-repeated falsehood. As an instance of this disability I may mention a singular occurrence during the 'cutting in' by us of a cachalot off the coast of New Zealand. The lower jaw and throat piece had been lifted, turning the whale on its back, and leaving a great oval hollow of considerable depth in the carcase. There was a nasty sea running, which occasionally broke over the whale's body fore and aft, filling the aforesaid hollow with a greasy, gory mixture. Alongside, the usual concourse of frantic sharks fought madly for a morsel of blubber, regardless of the occasional disappearance of one of their number with a split brain-pan.

Now, it is necessary at this stage of 'cutting in' for a man to descend upon the carcase for the purpose of passing a chain strap through what is called the 'rising piece' or first cut of blubber. One of our harpooners, therefore, jumped into the foul pool, foolishly discarding the safety line, which hampered his movements. As he wrestled with the big links of the chain sling, a combing sea lifted two of the sharks, each about 7ft. long, into the cavity beside him. Of course, he promptly turned his attention to his visitors, laying hold of one by the tail, to which he clung with a death-grip. For a while the three were indistinguishable in the internal broil. Man and sharks writhed in one inextricable tangle amidst the foaming slime. It was impossible to strike down at any moment, for fear of killing our shipmate, and it really looked as if we should see him beaten to death beneath our eyes. But, suddenly exerting all his remaining strength in one great effort, the poor fellow flung one of the monsters out from him at right angles. Instantly a spade descended like a flash upon the shark's head, killing him at once. But at the same moment another wave lippered over and swept all three out of the hollow into the teeming sea alongside. With a wild yell two kanakas sprang after and seized their helpless shipmate in the midst of the startled crowd of sharks. Half a dozen ropes were flung, and in two minutes salvors and saved were on deck. The unfortunate harpooner was black and blue, besides being badly strained, but of toothmarks not a sign.

'Encounter with a shark in Sydney Harbor' (Sydney Illustrated News, 1786)

As Plutarch has remarked, the deep-sea shark is a tender parent. For a considerable time after the young are born (in the viviparous kinds) they are sheltered within the mother's body, finding instant refuge down her throat at the approach of danger. Numberless instances are on record of female sharks being caught with from 10 to 20 healthy, vigorous young ones in some receptacle within her body, they having previously been seen swimming about her and disappearing down her throat. The friendship of the pilot fish for the shark, too, is a beautiful instance of mutual aid which is entirely true. Therefore, apparently, much doubt is cast upon it, many refusing to believe any good of the piscis anthropophagus, as Dr. Badham gravely calls him.

Alopecias vulpes, or the ' thrasher,' is a shark of aggressive and dangerous character, but certainly not so to man. Its characteristic feature is au immensely long upper lobe to its tail. This it wields with wonderful effect when, in company with a small and fierce species of grampus (Orca gladiator) it attacks the peaceful mysticetæ, or toothless whales. The blows it deals are incredibly severe and rapid, cutting long strips of blubber from the back of the harassed mammal, who, incapable of fight or flight, soon falls an easy prey to the combined forces. The Pristiophordæ, or saw-fishes, are perhaps the most terrible in appearance of all the shark tribe. They are really a connecting link between the sharks and rays, partaking largely of the characteristics of the latter. The head is prolonged into a bony shaft varying in length and width, according to the size of the individual, but attaining a length of 3ft. and a width at the base of 9in. On either side it is furnished with pointed teeth some distance apart, the whole weapon forming a formidable double-edged saw carried horizontally. Neither does this awe inspiring monster attack man. It feeds upon the soft parts of certain sluggish fish which it disembowels with its saw. Its teeth are few and feeble, and unless hard pressed by hunger it does not prey on garbage. But want of space forbids the further pursuit at present of this most interesting subject, only the fringe of which it has been possible to touch here.'