Most people assume that all sharks are dangerous, and some do not dare to swim next to an untamed shark. Sharks are commonly perceived as man-eaters and a threat to humans swimming in open water. Due to several media coverages on shark attacks, some believe that we should eliminate this threat and allow people to swim confidently in open water. Whenever people hear the word shark, people think of “dangerous,” “man-eater,” and “sea-monster. ” They all have their reasons. Sharks, despite their late discovery, are associated with ancient monsters or demons.
In ancient history, people could not fully understand gruesome shark attacks, and they commonly interpreted these mystical sharks as a mythical sea monster. For example, to explain the missing fishermen and children in Ancient Greece, the Greeks believed that Lamia, an ancient sea monster, ate fishermen and children to exact revenge upon Zeus who had turned her into a sea monster. Today, Lamia is what we know today as a shark. According to an article I read, the name itself, “Lamia,” translates into “lone-shark” (Mythical Creatures Guide). Some of these ancient mystical sea monsters are today’s sharks.
Even today, the word “shark” and “sea monster” are exchangeable. The world continues to believe that these sharks are “sea monsters. ” Movies that feature antagonistic sharks make money off of this common fear of sharks. Jaws, a movie that featured boat-destroying man-eating sharks, made the highest gross income in 1975 (Sciretta, 2010). Even Discovery Channel has a whole week dedicated to observing violent sharks. Seeing these sharks stalk their prey and devour them instills a sense of fear in the viewer’s mind, and in response, the viewer’s mind silently says that sharks are untrustworthy and should be annihilated.
However, this is not the case in Palau, a small Pacific nation located between Guam and Philippines. In Palau, you can swim in the open water without having to worry about sharks. My dad used to tell me stories of how he used to ride sharks when he was a boy. Some sharks were also a guide for lost fishermen from my village. On a more fundamental basis, sharks are an important factor in Palau’s economy and ecosystem. Sharks are not feared in Palau; they are respected. Palau, by establishing the world’s first shark sanctuary, proves this.
Palau is a popular tourist site, and is considered one of the seven wonders of the underwater world. Besides its flourishing ecosystem, shark diving is one of the many tourist attractions of Palau. Shark diving refers to diving to see a shark. About 21% of the tourists visiting Palau dive in hopes to see a shark while diving (Vianna et al, 2010). That means that almost one-fifth of the tourist population come to Palau just to see sharks. Surprisingly, a live shark in its lifetime may contribute more than one-hundred-seventy thousand dollars to Palau’s economy (Vianna et al, 2010).
This means that a shark, in twenty to thirty years, contributes money to Palau’s economy simply by existing. Wouldn’t that be the life? As tour-guides and inhabitants of the land, Palauans must know places where sharks often visit. A famous place for both sharks and tourists is called Shark City, and this is where most of the shark diving takes place. Gray Reef Sharks and Black-tip Sharks are only some of the many shark inhabitants of the infamous Shark City. Because sharks attack when they are provoked, tour guides brief the divers before every shark dive.
For example, the divers are instructed not to get too close and not to take flash photography. If done properly, tourists and sharks experience a combination of two different world. Some divers believe it to be a dive of a lifetime. There has been blogs describing the experience as “incredible” and “adrenaline-packed”, and for good reason. Going against the status quo makes a memorable experience especially if everything works out in the end. Swimming with sharks is definitely against the status quo, and that’s what makes it so memorable.
It contradicts the common belief sharks are desperate man-eating creatures. However, it is still important to practice caution in the ocean especially when spearfishing. When Palauans go spearfishing, they take a different risk from that of divers. Spearfishing is a type of fishing activity where fishermen dive underwater and catch fish using a spear gun. Because the spears pierce the fish and let off blood, sharks are enticed and become aggressive. The sharks usually attack the fish on the spear, but occasionally, they may attack the fishermen.
Because Palauans have lived with sharks for a long time, they have learned to recognize certain shark behaviors. One example is the angle of the shark’s flipper. If a shark’s flipper is facing downwards, the shark is aggressive. Another example is the tiger shark. Tiger sharks, the most dangerous shark in Palau, only attack in groups; so if someone sees an individual tiger shark, it is best to get out o f the water before it returns with its hunting group. These precautions keep the Palauan fishermen safe.
In 2001, Palau experienced a decline in the shark population due to shark finning. Despite the sharks’ dangerous appearance, they were harmless against foreign fishing vessels. Foreign fishing vessels catch sharks in great numbers, cut off their fins, and dump the sharks’ body back into the ocean. These finless sharks sink to the bottom of the ocean and die. The foreign vessels return to their homeland and sell these fins for money. While Palau may benefit from this, sharks are more valuable to Palau alive.
This shark fishing led to a huge decline in the shark population, and Palau could not just sit by and watch. So in 2001, the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, decided to act. He and the nation of Palau passed a bill to protect the shark population within its waters, and Palau became the world’s first shark sanctuary. In return for protecting them, sharks continue to provide a healthy oceanic ecosystem and a source of income for Palau. While the rest of the world shivers in fear as they hear the word shark, the people of Palau have come to an understanding with the sharks.
They have defined the relationship between sharks as human as that of respect, rather than fear. Palau provides a safe environment for these sharks and in return, the sharks provide a sustainable lifestyle for Palau. To be exact, sharks provide a reason for tourist to visit and also keep the ocean’s ecosystem in balance. On the other hand, Palau protects all the sharks within its waters. It is a relationship of mutual benefit. It is rather an uncommon belief, but in Palau, one does not have to fear sharks. Rather, one can enjoy the experience of a lifetime and swim with them instead.