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“Sharks bite fewer people each year than New Yorkers do, according to health department records.”—“An Eden for Sharks”, by Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 2007


The fin is unmistakable. Slicing through the wavy foreground of a vast ocean, with the sun majestically setting behind, it resonates with ominous connotations: danger, predation, strength, speed, blood, horror, death, and evil. It may be the most foreboding animal image in global culture, one that competes with the Devil himself, attached to a creature that, for millions, conjures more fear than the darkest dictator. 


cover art

The Book of Sharks

Richard Ellis

(Knopf, reprint)

cover art

Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

David D. Gilmore

(University of Pennsylvania Press)

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Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America

Ralph S. Collier

(Scientia)

Sharks have been swimming through our collective unconscious for centuries. In Greek mythology, Lamia, mother of Scylla, was a cannibalistic sea goddess with a sweet tooth for children. Originally a Libyan queen, Lamia was one of Zeus’s many lovers, and Hera transformed her into a shark-like monster after she learned of their affair. As the iconic jilted lover, she turned crazy and hunted children after Hera stole hers; although often associated with serpents, her name has also been associated with various female monsters include vampires. In fact, the word “lamnidae”, originating from the mythical creature, is used for a family of sharks that includes shortfin and longfin makos, porbeagles, and white sharks, including the great white.


Greenland shark photo from New-Brunswick.net

Greenland shark photo from New-Brunswick.net


In Hawaiian mythology, shark gods known as Aumakua abound and serve as the people’s primary protectors of the sea. Kamohoalii, the most revered of the Hawaiian shark gods, plays a prominent role in several myths and can shape shift into human and fish forms. Richard Ellis, the famous marine biologist and author of The Book of Sharks, explains how in Eskimo mythology, Greenland fish originated from wood chips, but the Greenland shark, which smells like ammonia, has a different origin: one day, an elderly woman was washing her hair with urine; the wind blew away the cloth she used to dry her hair and carried it to the ocean, where the Greenland shark it magically became.


Sharks have often possessed providential and monstrous qualities, and not coincidentally, because those qualities are often synonymous in monster lore. David D. Gilmore, in his anthropological study of global monsters titled Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, writes how monsters worldwide serve fundamental psychological, social, and cultural purposes. Gilmore explains how monsters command god-like reverence due to, among other qualities, their size, transformative abilities, and strength, and etymologically, their denotative meanings have been related to signs and warnings often sent by or associated with deities. According to Gilmore, monsters reflect society’s anxieties and provide psychological catharsis, and therefore a type of healing, by allowing repressed emotions to be vicariously expelled when challenged in legends, stories, films, or other narratives.


Sharks have long been perceived as the archetypal monster worthy of reverence, and they meet two basic criteria in Gilmore’s profile of that archetype. First, they inhabit the ocean, a powerful metaphor for everything the stable, terrestrial world is not: a fluidic, more mysterious underworld and borderland that is impervious to light and transcends human-defined delineations. Second, sharks’ imposing teeth reveal an underlying relationship to their oral aggressiveness, a feature many monsters possess that conveys complex psychological undertones about cannibalism and psychosexual development. Combined with the universal popularity of sea monsters in general, sharks are the ideal monsters to rivet our unconscious.


They inhabit many countries’ myths, but unlike portrayals of sharks in popular culture, sharks that haunt the minds of ancient peoples are imbued with reverence and an appreciation for their role in the ecological, cultural, political, historical, and natural order. But, if ignorance is bliss, and if we fear most what we don’t understand, these platitudes, when applied to sharks, reflect how these graceful fish have been depicted in cinema since Steven Spielberg placed them on Hollywood’s payroll.


Unfortunately, sharks’ behavioral complexities, species diversity, ecological importance, and long-term fragility have largely been ignored since Jaws, the movie, debuted in 1975. Sharks have served one purpose on celluloid: to invoke terror, and they have since been divorced from their sacred contexts and placed in more profane, terrifying, one-dimensional realms. Since then, no other fish has adorned the silver screen more regularly than sharks.


Three sequels to the original Jaws were released between 1978 and 1987. The following films have capitalized on Jaws’ success by weaving narratives around not only sharks, but the brutality of their attacks: Shark Kill (1976), Tintorera (1977), Great White (1980), Cruel Jaws (1995), Deep Blue Sea (1999), the Shark Attack series (1999, 2001, and 2002), Shark Hunter (2001), Shark Zone (2003), Open Water (2003) and Open Water 2: Adrift (2006), Red Water (2003), Megalodon (2004), Raging Sharks (2005), Spring Break Shark Attack (2005), and Into the Blue (2005).  While most of the above films are B-movie fare, some have received modest commercial success. Similar films about marauding underwater menaces including killer whales have also emerged from the depths following Jaws’ lead: an Orca in 1977’s The Killer Whale); piranhas in 1978’s Piranha and; mutant fish in 2004’s Frankenfish.

In fact, sharks have swallowed many facets of popular culture. In the National Hockey League, the San Jose Sharks’ mascot is a great white devouring a hockey stick. ESPN, a bellwether for pop culture trends, has submerged its fishing programs in shark-related propaganda. For example, a peek at the ESPN Outdoors News site in May of this year revealed 40 links to news stories about fishing: 13 were related to sharks, and five reported shark attacks. The popularity of television shark tournaments is also growing. ESPN’s Madfin Shark Tournament and Versus’ Shark Hunters: East vs. West are recent installments in the growing craze over shark fishing. A recent MSNBC.com article contributed by Forbes Traveler titled “Ten top shark-infested beaches” is also revealing because its language, like the two programs, is vital in understanding this trend. Sharks are depicted as vermin “infesting” beaches and are “mad” and thus worthy of being hunted, killed, and ultimately, eliminated. In each instance, sharks are reduced to quarry or nuisances in humans’ endless effort to obtain more capital and leisure.


In the article “Great White Shark Attacks: Defanging the Myths” for National Geographic News, reporter Jennifer Hile reveals how many myths circling great whites—which, as the king of sharks are the most frequently misrepresented and demonized—are inaccurate. She quotes Ralph Collier, president of California’s Shark Research Committee and author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America, who stated, “In the 20th century, there were 108 authenticated, unprovoked shark attacks along the Pacific Coast of the United States…Of those, eight attacks were fatal. When you consider the number of people in the water during that hundred year period, you realize deadly strikes are very rare.” Great whites have acute vision, approach humans with caution, and use their teeth more to “feel out” their prey than ravenously chew on them, Hile reports.


Ironically, crocodiles, snakes, bees, and elephants attack more people annually than sharks. According to Alessandro De Maddalena, the curator of the Italian Great White Shark Data Bank and a founding member of the Mediterranean Shark Research Group, “On a worldwide scale, the number of shark attacks on humans amounts to about 100 per year, of which only 5 to 15 are fatal. In most cases, the attack ends after the initial contact and the shark does not kill or eat the victim.” In fact, lightning poses a greater risk to humans than sharks do. 


According to an article written in 2000 by Tom Wilkinson in The Christian Science Monitor, “an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year for various kinds of human consumption, be they fins for soup in the Far East, meat for fish-and-chips dinners in North America and Europe, or cartilage packed into pills which are alleged to help fight illness.” (“Sharks caught in jaws of human appetite” 16 May 2000, Vol. 92, Issue 122) The population for three sub-species, once popular along US coasts—sandbar, black-tipped, and dusky sharks—have each declined between 75 and 90 percent. According to the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a coalition supported by the Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program, the practice of finning along the Hawaiian Islands alone increased by more than 2,000 percent during the ‘90s. (Wilkinson)


Another ominous sign for sharks occurred in May 2007, when federal scientists in Hawaii sought permission to destroy Galapagos sharks due to the threat they pose to monk seals, which are already endangered. Louise Murray, writing for Geographical in 2005, reported, “Spanish boats registered in the United Kingdom are laying down thousands of square kilometers of nets at depths of 1,000 meters. With 50,000 tons of sharks caught in the fishery every year, numbers of deep-water species (of sharks) have crashed by 80 percent in the past ten years.” (“Deep-sea shark numbers crash”, Decmber 2005, Volume 77, Issue 12)


According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, published in a thorough 2002 report in Biologist written by Rachel Cunningham-Day, “shark catches have been rising steadily since the 1940s. The Marine Conservation Society estimates that drift gill nets alone kill 3,000 sharks daily.” She writes, “Greenpeace Australia calculated that, in 1988 alone, Taiwanese and Korean squid fleets killed over 2.25 million blue sharks in the North Pacific,” and “Hong Kong customs data show that total imports of shark fins rose from 2.7 million kilos in 1980 to 6.1 million in 1995.”


While some countries, including the United States, Brazil, Costa Rica, Oman, South Africa, the European Union, and Australia, already have laws banning shark finning, more international monitoring and legislation is needed since many sharks are migratory. The harvest is an ecological genocide, and it is happening to a species that already struggles to reproduce due to its biological uniqueness. Many shark species take a long time to sexually mature, and when they do reproduce, their offspring is often limited in number. That reality, along with the fact that sharks are apex predators, ecologically assigned to eliminate unhealthy fish, reveals how disturbing these harvests are for many species. Significantly reduce shark populations, and you literally disrupt the ecological balance of power in the ocean. The irony here is that humans are the ones preying on sharks in monstrous ways.


While some films have occasionally skimmed the surface of sharks’ complexities, overall, their sophomoric characterizations of sharks echo a one-sided monologue: sharks are ruthless flesh-eating machines that pose a direct threat to humans. However, the facts paint a dramatically different picture and call for a more dynamic portrayal of sharks in popular culture. The pendulum for how sharks are portrayed is swinging toward more biologically and ecologically dynamic depictions due to the slow but steady dissemination of data about dwindling shark populations and worldwide conservation efforts. Two recent films are evidence of this trend: Finding Nemo (2003) and Shark Tale (2004) have done sharks a better turn under the unassuming guise of animated films and children’s entertainment, but given each film’s success, one can assume their ecological messages are being heard, too, and they may just be the genesis of what can only be called a “kelproots” movement in cinema to protect, conserve, and appreciate sharks. And this movement is needed now more than ever before.


Finding Nemo’s success launched many sea creatures into the limelight, and one of the most popular was “Bruce,” the great white shark. Many common stereotypes surrounding sharks occur in Nemo. Early in the film, Nemo’s father, Marlin, reminds his son that “it’s (the ocean) not safe,” and after a barracuda kills Nemo’s mother and Nemo is kidnapped by a scuba-diving poacher, marking the first two obstacles that launch this animated odyssey, Bruce is the first major menace Marlin encounters during his rescue mission. Thus, this great white is living proof of the ocean’s dangers. Bruce’s body and razor-like teeth are uncomfortably large, as if the shark’s goofy personality is unfit for such a menacing frame and black eyes.


Bruce the shark

Bruce the shark


The absurdity of a great white shark preying on a tiny clownfish, which is what Bruce and his two buddies, “Anchor” the blue shark and “Chum” the hammerhead, instinctually do when they encounter Marlin, is ecologically silly: sharks don’t prey on clownfish. The three sharks are portrayed as recovering alcoholics; however, their addiction is eating fish and not booze as they suffer from being “eating machines”. In essence, their existence as predators is fundamentally flawed, which means sharks are fundamentally flawed since they cannot change their biological destiny. This addiction is too powerful to overcome; when Bruce literally smells a waft of blood, hell breaks loose, and he chases the tiny fish like a madman, at one point being depicted as Jack Torrance from The Shining when he states through the crevice in a sunken boat, “Here’s Brucey!” The point here is obvious: once a homicidal maniac, always a homicidal maniac because rehabilitation is impossible. 


But the problem is that Bruce and his two buddies are not maniacal predators by choice. They are friendly, courteous, and controlled to a point; their problem is not theirs. Although this portrayal of sharks’ softer sides ultimately doesn’t work since they are undermined by the stereotypes noted above, they reflect, finally, an attempt to depict sharks differently than in previous films, and they openly acknowledge that sharks have been misunderstood and misrepresented. This is a powerful environmental and ecological message, especially when directed at younger audiences that represent new generations of film viewers potentially unfamiliar with Jaws. This is why the recovering trio initially urges Marlin and Dory to “trust a shark” and later repeat this provocative mantra: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine, and if I’m to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.”


These words serve more as an industry-wide confession that accepts blame for the lopsided portrayal of sharks than the mindless chant of animated sharks anthropomorphisized by computer-generated imagery. Although sharks have not fully escaped their dark past, the light of recovery is reluctantly beginning. Underling environmental agendas in Disney’s animated films are no surprise, which may be why, according to the August 2005 edition of Ecologist, Disney, in responding to protests against its plan to serve shark fin soup at its Hong Kong center, planned to distribute pamphlets explaining the dish’s environmental impact. Critics argued the pamphlets were weak in explaining those apocalyptic impacts, but like the portrayal of this kindly, fearsome trio, it’s an invitation to a much-needed and grander conversation.


Lenny the shark

Lenny the shark


In Shark Tale, we again experience a shark with an identity crisis. Lenny is a great white and the son of Don Lino, a mafia boss who rules the local reef. As Don Lino, voiced by Robert De Niro, offers his empire to his two sons, Lenny is portrayed as being unfit for the job. Lenny openly defies the stereotypes in Jaws early in the film when the famous soundtrack from Jaws is played, leading to a close-up of Lenny, who frees a worm dangling on a hook, wants to pick flowers, and refuses to hit his brother or other sharks. Lenny even reveals the Jaws theme gives him “the creeps”.


From the film’s opening minutes, Lenny aggressively encounters and overcomes the “Jaws syndrome”. Later in the film, as his father demands of him the machismo all gangsters must demonstrate, Lenny refuses to eat live prawn and shows mercy by releasing them into the wild ocean. Although this infuriates his father because, according to Don Lino, “You see a fish, you kill it, and eat it. That’s what sharks do,” Lenny eventually earns his father’s respect, but not until after he reveals that he is a “closet” vegetarian and must go undercover disguised as a dolphin. At one point, Lenny even says, “What’s wrong with me?” but ultimately discovers his identity. Interestingly, when Lenny reveals his true identity as an uncharacteristically mellow, friendly shark, his father ultimately accepts him: thus, the truth is what brings out the softer side in the most corrupt of sharks, and the truth is what ultimately brings redemption for Lenny.


However, like Finding Nemo, many of the damaging stereotypes of sharks are still in play. The happiness of those who inhabit the reef is directly linked to the presence of sharks: according to a local Scallop Poll reported by Katie Current, the reef is under siege by sharks, and “shark fear” is at all-time high. Originally titled Sharkslayer, the film is rife with propaganda that has demonized sharks for decades. Sharks are gangsters motivated primarily by selfishness and greed. The society’s hero, in this case Oscar, a bottom-dwelling fish, can only emerge and succeed in society when he vanquishes the monster, a.k.a. the sharks. When he destroys Lenny’s brother, his success is meteoric, and once again we witness the shark-monster bringing out the best, heroic qualities in a protagonist.


However, the essence of Shark Tale’s ecological message is this: both Oscar’s reputation and the portrayal of sharks in cinema are based on lies: sharks and fish throughout various levels of the food chain can successfully coexist, as evidenced by Oscar and Lenny’s friendship. Sharks need other fish just as other fish need sharks. Remove one, and the food chain is unchained, which could result in ecological disaster. The same message bubbles in Nemo, albeit more episodically: Bruce and his two shark friends can coexist with Marlin and Dory, at least momentarily.


The portrayal of sharks as comical antiheroes starkly contrasts with the beasts that terrorize films like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and Open Water. In those films, sharks represent pure evil and the most hideous of antagonists. In these two animated films, sharks possess multi-faceted personalities that more accurately reflect their complicated biology. Although both films ultimately suggest that sharks may be creatures with problems beyond recovery - one is an alcoholic and the other a gangster (Lenny is the exception, not the norm) - sharks do have many redeemable qualities, and as cultural antiheroes, we cannot escape the reality that their portrayals in cinema, when compared to these two portrayals, have leaned too heavily toward cold-blooded killers. Only time will tell if the kelproots flourish.


When I imagine a shark, I immediately think of my DNA and what connects me genetically to this graceful, efficient hunter. In it, I see myself: an efficient carnivore, a capitalist, a misunderstood apex predator preying on the natural resources that surround me, doing what I know how to do best: consuming. Notwithstanding its superior speed, strength, and predatory instincts, in sharks I also see profoundly fragile creatures that need help, like myself. I pray that in the future a movie screen or their imagination is not the only places my kids can find a shark.


Photo from About.com

Photo from About.com


A salt- and freshwater angler for more than 30 years, Chris has been fascinated (or obsessed, depending on your temperament) with the sport ever since he caught his first sunfish in Lawrence Brook with his grandfather, Leo. He is an avid catch-and-release angler, and enjoys both spin and fly-fishing. Although he'll pursue anything with gills, his favorite targets are rockfish, trout, and shad. His PopMatters monthly column, The Tackle Box, explores the confluence of the sport and popular culture.


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