Our fear of sharks is tinged with subconscious guilt | Philip Hoare | Opinion

A shark on a Spanish beach is a vividly terrifying image. The holiday idyll threatened by a sharp-finned deputation from the deep. This is no “snakes on a plane” fantasy. Potential disaster looms. There are children out there, for God’s sake. In a resort where the sand may be raked daily, and where a margarita is never more than a few euros away, such disruptive visions seem all the sharper.

Can’t somebody do something about it? The animal was eventually captured – and was found to be already wounded. It is a parable in a meme (to mix narrative metaphors): our infantile fear for our infants becomes the innocent animal’s death. In this case, via a harpoon – administered either before or after its visitation.

For beach-goers used only to virtual, CGI terror, glimpsed on their blue screens, the reality out of that ultimate blue-screen sea is actually somewhat pathetic. A thrashing fish, tomorrow’s steak, taking a long time to die, paying for its mistake in coming into contact with a predator it wasn’t expecting. I predict that we are only days away from reports of great whites off Cornwall – which usually turn out to be basking sharks, whose appetites extend to nothing bigger than plankton. How strange we are, faced with our fleeting pleasures, that they must be tinged with mortality.

The summer sees us reconnect to the sea, an element on which we usually turn our backs – either out of ignorance or trepidation. But we are not stupid. Our fear is not unfathomed. Beyond the possibility of drowning, and below that evanescent medium, any manner of terrors might lie – from stinging jellyfish to ferocious apex predators.

A basking shark



‘I predict that we are only days away from reports of great whites off Cornwall – which usually turn out to be basking sharks (pictured).’ Photograph: Alex Mustard/Nature Picture Library/Getty Images/Nature Picture Library

I swim every single day in the sea – throughout the year – in the murky Solent under the shadow, not of a beach umbrella, but an oil refinery. I like the juxtaposition. It conjures up images of the days before package tours when Greenwich and Tower Bridge boasted Thames-side beaches, and Hampton Court claimed to be London’s Riviera.

Wading out in the dark before dawn, as I did this morning, I often get bitten by fish. A nip on the ankles from a bass is no Spielberg scenario. No one’s going to need a bigger boat. But you’d be a fool not to take a shark seriously.

Unlike cetaceans, their rivals for apex position in the sea, sharks seek no connection with us. I’ve never felt so safe in the water as I have done when swimming near whales. Even when a pod of marauding, transient orca drove me out of the water in Sri Lanka earlier this year (after ramming and attempting to overturn our fishing boat), I could rationalise their behaviour as mammalian, sentient. Admirable, even. With sharks, it is a different matter.

Recently, a TV company from Barcelona thought it would make a good sequence if I swam in the city’s aquarium in the company of its sand tiger sharks. With whales and dolphins, one senses a mutual curiosity. But these creatures, sliding by, looked at me through glaucous, reptilian eyes. There was no focus there, no reaction. I felt that the only interest they had in me was in the paltry mouthfuls with which my puny, bony body might supplement their diet. Last summer in the truly, rather than mimetically deep waters of the Azores, from the prow of a Zodiac, I saw a hammerhead shark twisting and turning in the sea below me. Even though I was safely above, I felt an atavistic frisson, as if it might yet leap up at me.

It is our imagination – never less than a glorious thing – that is at work here. But also, perhaps, a subconscious sense of guilt. This same sublime ocean, always so out of our reach, is now poisoning those monsters. There will be more plastic than fish in it by 2050. Our only resident pod of orcas have been unable to rear a healthy calf for 23 years because of PCBs and heavy metals in the seas. And last week came the news that a rare Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded on the Isle of Skye – an image replete with so many levels of “purity” – was the first cetacean death to be definitively due to plastic: 4kg of ziplock and carrier bags.

Meanwhile, anthropogenic noise – in an environment that for almost all of its existence knew only the cracking of pistol shrimps or the echo-locating clicks of cetaceans – now drowns out all else: diesel-powered freight, seismic surveys for oil, military sonar. When the shipping lanes from the US east coast to Europe were closed in the days after the 9/11 attacks, scientists studying right whale vocalisations realised their subjects had stopped shouting.

There are deep irreconcilables at work here: what we want the sea to be (a resort for our dreams, the edge of otherness) and what we have turned it into (a cistern for our sins). Any water is a mortal place – as the families who lost their young men on Camber Sands last year know all too well. But the water is an immortal place, too, a place of magical transitions, for all species.

The dark shark slides into the clear warm water, laden with all of our presuppositions, all the vital disconnections between us and the rest of creation. It is dumb, stupid, dull-eyed, to our minds. But perhaps, in its dim, antediluvian memory, which predates ours by 400 million years, it thinks the same about us. And as fearful as we may be of it, our fear of its illimitable domain reminds us that we are still alive and kicking.

Philip Hoare’s RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR is published by Fourth Estate on 13 July

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