When journalist Juliet Eilperin began reporting the stories that have led to her most recent book, she says, “Many people said it was a natural transition from politicians to sharks.”
At a National Geographic Live event in DC last night, she discussed her book “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” about how human relationships with sharks have developed over centuries, and what may lie in their future.
She began by discussing the central role sharks played in the lives of traditional island cultures, from the shark god whom Hawaiians credited with inventing surfing to the common belief that sharks protected ships. But Eilperin said that during the Middle Ages, many European cultures essentially forgot about sharks.
Stark reminders of their power came when sailors noticed sharks following slave ships, and again in the early 1900s, when shark attacks on beachgoers were widely publicized. These incidents played into political campaigns and prompted government committees.
“There’s no question,” Eilperin said, “that Jaws had an incredible impact” on popular perceptions of sharks and their danger to humans. On average, shark attacks kill only five people a year, far less than other large predators, diseases, or even vending machines. However, she is quick to note that while plenty of people—even marine biologists!—were caught up in the scare, there were also some who became inspired to study sharks.
And it was clear that Eilperin would like more people to do exactly that. Throughout her talk, she was careful to point out how little we actually know about sharks and the dangers they are facing. From the exact number of shark species (somewhere in the ballpark of 450-500) to a detailed picture of their role in ecosystem maintenance, we still have lots to learn about this species that has been on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs.
Moreover, we have lots to learn from sharks. Citing “critter cams” that help scientists film large animals and that were inspired by fish that attach themselves to shark fins, Eilperin said, “There are technical innovations they might lead us to that we don’t even know yet.” Just last week, a team of scientists announced that a compound derived from sharks may be able to treat human viruses.
But she worries that we may lose that opportunity since tens of millions of sharks are killed each year in the booming shark fin trade and as collateral damage in industrial fishing operations. Recreational shark fishing also continues, although she sees a shift in public attitude that offers catch-and-release programs and eco-tourism as more profitable alternatives to killing sharks.
In the U.S., she said, sharks may benefit from our tradition of incorporating wilderness into the American identity, both unofficially and through national parks. The oceans often receive less attention than forests, mountains, and deserts, however. “People have a hard time thinking about marine wilderness,” she said.
Of her own experience swimming with sharks, Eilperin said, “I was amazed by how indifferent the sharks were to me….We’re far more obsessed with them than they are with us.”
One way to reduce shark hysteria, she said, is to expose more people to them as they really are, rather than as movies would have us think of them. “People are most scared of the sharks they can’t see,” she said. For the armchair adventurer, Eilperin’s writing does exactly that, replacing fear with awe and trepidation with curiosity.
Video of Eilperin’s lecture will be posted on National Geographic’s website.
Inspired by Eilperin to save sharks? Tell the government to protect our oceans’ top predators.