The sharks are all sharks

Construction of the Jaws shark © 1974 Joe Alves/Courtesy of Moonrise Media (via FlavorWire)

Construction of one of the three pneumatically powered Jaws sharks, all named Bruce. © 1974 Joe Alves/Courtesy of Moonrise Media (via FlavorWire)

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
– Ernest Hemingway

I haven’t written in here for a while. I wish I had a decent reason. The point is, this is about sharks. 

Even in a small inland town, it always seemed highly likely that I would one day be attacked by a shark. When swimming alone in a pool, I’d be gripped with fear – the drift of my legs, then the imaginary jaws latching on to one of them – and would galumph desperately to the pool’s edge. At the height of these shark fears I was probably about twelve, had read too many large-format Monsters of the Sea-type books, had had too many conversations with my brothers about shark attacks, and perhaps most crucially, had seen Jaws too many times; it would be years until behind-the scenes photographs of the construction and filming of the giant pneumatically powered, neoprene-coated sharks (there were three), which might’ve helped me get some perspective, came to surface. It’s hard to look at those photographs now – such as the one above, with art director Joe Alves standing beside one of his half-finished sharks – without seeing the simultaneous construction and reinforcement of generations of shark fear and loathing.

To me, the image of the man-eating shark – dead eyes, a mouth festooning with razor blades – was always more powerful than reason. It was the image of pure fear. Even Margaret Mahy’s picture book The Great White Man-Eating Shark, whose central character Norwin straps a homemade fin to his back so he can have the whole beach to himself, used to frighten me – simply because the image of a dorsal fin slicing through water was so viscerally terrifying. All this, when the biggest in-water threat when I was a child was being nibbled by an eel or struck by someone with a pool noodle. I’m pretty sure my fear of sharks also led to an even more unreasonable fear of any mysterious thing living in water: seaweed, jellyfish, even swirling schools of minnows, each no bigger than a paperclip.

It’s really only in the last decade that I’ve begun to think more rationally and compassionately about sharks, and in recent months I’ve been excited to come across artwork that depicts sharks very differently from those images I grew up with – depictions that break away from the old equation of sharks with soullessness and horror. (Most of these are by the collaborative artists Kozy and Dan. See their Campbell’s Shark Fin Soup sculpture, too – a grisly, important statement.)

Waiting sharks by Franco Matticchio (via Animalarium)

Waiting sharks by Franco Matticchio (via Animalarium)

The Shark Charmer by Kozyndan

The Shark Charmer by Kozyndan. The painting depicts an ama – a Japanese woman diver – hypnotising a hammerhead and a tiger shark.

Hunters: Charks an' Kittehs by (via koyzndan)

Hunters: Charks an’ Kittehs by Koyzndan

Detail from Charks and Kittehs by Kozydan

Detail from Hunters: Charks an’ Kittehs by Kozydan

As everyone knows, in late February 2013, a man named Adam Strange was killed by a shark when swimming at Muriwai in West Auckland; it was incredibly awful and sad, and traumatic for everyone involved. It brought up a lot of my old thinking about sharks. It’s easy to forget, amidst all the news coverage of a fatal shark attack, that these are wild animals, and that when you go into the sea you’re going into an often unpredictable place. The first thing to go, though, is perspective. These events are rare. Since 1852, there have been thirteen fatal shark attacks in New Zealand.

Growing up means finding less delight in being terrified (so, along with my slow waning of shark obsession went an obsession with UFOs and aliens, Big Foot, and Dean Koontz’s books), and once you look closely at the fear that fuels so much of our thinking about sharks, you find a lot of myths and strange contradictions. Even knowing the statistics on shark attacks, I think, puts very little dent in our fear. We know that, for example, you are more likely to die by falling off a chair than being eaten by a shark; your odds are actually 1 in 11.5 million, according to Oceana. And there’s the fact that sharks have become the prey of humans, that many of their species have been hunted to the point of critical endangerment.

I wonder if the place that sharks occupy in our language doesn’t help, where they’re always a symbol of vicious, self-centered behaviour – ‘loan shark’, ‘shark eyes’, ‘card shark’ (a hustler or cheat), ‘shark-like’. It’s been argued that, etymologically, it’s all the other way around – that, in the 16th century, the name ‘shark’ was given to the fish because ‘shark’ was at first a descriptor for a dishonest person who preyed on others; a rogue, a scoundrel. And in another odd reversal, in some mythologies sharks are wise, protective figures, such as the shark god Ukupanipo of Hawaiian mythology, who controlled the amount of fish a fisherman could catch (and occasionally adopted a human child, who he’d bestow with the power to change into a shark at any time); and the Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa, who protected fishermen from danger at sea. 

Shark by Franco Matticchio (via Animalarium)

Shark by Franco Matticchio (via Animalarium)

Camouflage by Kozyndan (showing bunnyfish riding a shark)

Camouflage by Kozyndan (showing bunnyfish riding a whale shark)

Partly, too, my thinking has been turned around through talking to my brother John-Paul, who in an interview on this blog a while ago had some interesting things to say about sharks (including a very good answer to the eternal question: ‘Would you rather be attacked by a crocodile or a shark?’ The answer MAY SURPRISE YOU). His most recent album Anniversary Day was inspired by a shark attack in Wellington Harbour in 1852: John Balmer, a musician in the 65th regiment’s band, was swimming after performing with the band, when a shark fatally attacked him. (To date, Balmer is the only person to have been killed by a shark in Wellington.)

Every year on 21 January, the date of the 1852 attack, JP does a swim out to the floating raft in Oriental Bay and back to commemorate John Balmer. It’s a lovely, strangely triumphant gesture, I think.

John Balmer Memorial Swim 2013 (by Bridget Giblin)

John Balmer Memorial Swim 2013 (Photo: Bridget Giblin)

About ashleighlou

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6 Responses to The sharks are all sharks

  1. Really interesting article, and I love the illustration with the Charks and Kittens


  2. James Purtill says:

    Thought you might be interested to know the sharks are also in the news over here, and even more than usual. Or they were late last year, because there was a lot more shark attacks than usual, and so there were a lot of theories going around but why this was (warming waters / whale calves / rogues / live sheep export chumming the water), and what to do about it (nets, baited hooks, protective walls of bubbles, drone surveillance aircraft), and what to do when the big sharks start hanging around the swimming beaches. It was pretty scary, and it meant there were less swimmers. One man swam 20km at night for charity. I think one of the things that makes a shark so scary, and that makes the fear pretty much impossible to understand-away, (so that the statistics don’t matter, and the possibility seems new each time you arrive at the beach, at least so far with me), is this thought a wild animal predator, with no fear of humans, with a penchant for seal-sized meals, can be so close to a really normal part of the city. Which is a cliche, Jaws was all about that anyway, but still pretty amazing to think about. It’s not like when you drive out into the rural and the city tapers to cabbage and art galleries. There is a distinct lack of alpaca hobby farms to signpost the way. The promenade is perambulators and flat whites. The sea is Precambrian, with a few nets.


    • Yes. That’s it, isn’t it – there they go, past the sun umbrellas and volleyball nets. And I must say, I probably wouldn’t swim anywhere with temperate waters like that. The other thing that makes sharks slightly scarier and more amazing, in my mind, is that they have been around something like 400 million years. (Which makes the prospect of their extinction more foreboding too.) And still, still, there’s lots we don’t really know about them.


  3. Sarah Laing says:

    Oh, the swimming pool sharks! I was terrified of those too!


  4. My luminous fears were of volcanoes and vampires (none of us, for example, interpreted Fright Night as being about the threat of sexuality; nope, it was about never inviting a vampire into your house) but there were predatory animals on the margins too. It was fortunate I didn’t visit Australia until I was 18, and even then I was wary. The person whom I visited later told me that her sister, a veterinary student, was advised by a tutor that more people had been killed in Australia the previous year by toppling drink machines than had been eaten by crocodiles. I believe the former figure was around three and the latter, two.


  5. Your blog ate my comment! Ate it mercilessly, like a shark! In school, dolphins were really popular (I mean, it was the thing to love dolphins, they themselves weren’t the popular kids, although that is fun to imagine) while sharks were seen as pretty evil. I think it’s the Jaws thing. I’ve come full circle on sharks though, I now rather love them. They’re just doing their thing, and I prefer their toothy sneers to the endlessly cheerful dolphin.

    Also: the things I’d do for one of those Kozyndan cat-shark prints.


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