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Soup of This Day #374: From The Sea

April 27, 2014

An orca sportingly playing with a ball of ice – Photo: Robert L. Pitman, 2009. Robert L. Pitman is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I’ve often looked at surfing and thought, on paper at least, that it’s something I should be more interested in doing. It seems like an awesomely zen blend of sport and nature. I’d like to be more zen, I like sport and mostly I like nature, so this should be the perfect set for me.

Except that in this case nature scares me.

It took me a while to understand this, mostly because I’m generally in to the kind of nature you find in the ocean. I’ve been snorkelling over a reef and was blown away by the astonishing variety of shapes and colours. I’ve seen the like on the Internet, or TV, and even in person at AQWA – The Aquarium of Western Australia – But no matter how high-def the viewing in those circumstances, the feeling is nothing compared to being in the water, right there. My imagination couldn’t conger up the depth of being that I experienced out there above the coral.

Take away the coral though, exposing the abyss, and my imagination goes wild. To clarify – I consider an abyss to be any plane of water where I can’t make out a boundary. If I stick my head under at the local swimming pool and I can’t see the legs of a person 5m away, then it’s an abyss. And if I can’t see the movie ‘The Abyss’ showing on a TV located at the bottom of the Marianas Trench while floating on the surface above it, then you better believe that’s an abyss too.

An abyss is the unknown. My imagination looks into that big empty and figures that sharks are lurking.

And because my imagination is scarily specific, I can tell you exactly what kind of sharks they are – Great white sharks, (Carcharodon carcharias) – The biggest and most ferocious sharks going around, a true apex predator in it’s element.

It isn’t a naturally Longworth72 element either – Great whites are ocean killing machines, capable of underwater surges of over 56kph to catch prey. The fastest a human has swum is around 8.6kph and that pace was set in 1 of those now-banned swimsuits – It included a diving start and it didn’t involve me.

And once a great white has caught me I’m certainly not equipped to contend with it in the water – The average adult great white weighs in at more than 680kg. I weigh in at around 12% of that. Even without the weight disparity, a great white has a weapon humans can’t counter – A razor-toothed mouth that is capable of exerting a bite-force equivalent to that of Godzilla.

My research has shown that humans don’t do so well against Godzilla. Sure, we often triumph in the end, but usually only after Tokyo has been flattened.

If there is 1 mitigation it is that, fortunately, great white sharks don’t seem to enjoy eating humans – They instead prefer fat-rich prey such as seals. Unfortunately, great white sharks do appear to occasionally have trouble discerning between humans and seals, particularly when the human is wearing a sealskin-like wetsuit. By the time the shark has realised the error it’s usually too late.

So the great white is thought to be responsible for a significant number of human fatalities – That it probably didn’t mean it is irrelevant. Oops, my bad, isn’t going to heard from a great white any time soon and that kind of apologetic embarrassment is hardly likely to mollify those affected by an attack anyway.

This means that there is a certain amount of emotion and strength of feeling when it comes to debating what to do about sharks. The thinking is that we have to do something – As our population grows, surfing and fishing are becoming ever more popular. The result is more and more humans encroaching into an environment where the great white is at home. This clash of species has become particularly topical of late in Western Australia, where there have been 11 fatalities from shark attacks since 2000. 5 of those victims were surfing, the other 6 were swimming or diving.

That figure of 11 isn’t particularly high when compared to the 2,535 suicides that were recorded in Western Australia across the 10 years to 2010. It is bizarrely however more shocking – Those 11 were engaged in recreation, in sport. We can superficially rationalise people dying by partaking in suicide – They were after all, trying to kill themselves. You don’t however expect people to die while partaking in sport. Even more importantly, people playing sport shouldn’t be killed by nature, particularly when they are as 1 with it as those zen surfers surely are.

Because nature is the great outdoors and that’s where parents have long encouraged kids to go, instead of watching TV or playing video games. Get outside matey, you’ll hear them cry, it’s good for you. Unless nature mistakes you for a deliciously blubbery seal, you’ll not hear them add.

And so, this summer just past, the government of Western Australia decided to act. They decided on a shark cull.

Essentially what they organised was for baited hooks to be set off of popular beaches. They then examine the sharks that are caught, and if of a certain species and over a size of 3m, the shark is killed.

Great whites are 1 of the target species.

Not that non-target species are exempt anyway – The hooks can’t discriminate and some sharks that are outside of those parameters will die. This is a problem because we don’t know a lot about sharks – Great whites in particular are largely a mystery and they could easily be in danger of extinction. Or not, and the baited hooks could just be attracting more of them to our beaches.

Yeah, we don’t know a lot about great whites and so we don’t know a lot about how to stop them from attacking us, or how to get them to let us surf in harmony with the ocean. It’s not like we can just communicate with them.

It seems like Orcas can though.

Orcas (Orcinus orca) are otherwise known as killer whales, which could be seen as a bit unfair – There are other whales that kill on a grander scale – A blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) for instance will take in up to 40 million krill a day. That equates to around 3,600kg of the tiny crustaceans.

Which makes it a serial kriller.

Thank you, I’m here all night – Try the squid.

Particularly if you’re an orca – In contrast to the blue whale, orcas have a much more varied and slightly less gargantuan appetite. The average of 227kg they eat per day is primarily made up of fish, but they can also go for squid, walruses, turtles, seals, penguins, whales, porpoises, gulls, moose and…

Ok, so they do a fair bit of killing. That they kill moose seems like a bridge too far, although a few more bridges would probably be handy for the moose, given that they are occasionally taken by orcas when attempting to swim between islands.

Moose are just not your bridge-building types.

You know what orcas don’t go for in the wild though? Us. Humans. There hasn’t been a human death attributable to an orca attack ever recorded. Even in areas devoid of bridges. Which isn’t the same as saying that orcas haven’t killed humans – They have – It’s just that it has only been recorded as happening in captivity.

Yeah, in captivity orcas don’t do so well. They seem to be vulnerable to mental illness, which is understandable given that in the wild these creatures range across vast distances and with great freedom, and they kill people, possibly accidentally.

But not out in the open ocean. There they just kill everything else, quite intentionally. Including great whites.

Yep, great whites might be apex predators but they don’t do so well against orcas. In 2000, scientists off the coast of California recorded a probable encounter between an orca and a great white. The shark is suspected to have lost and in dying, some sort of message seems to have been communicated to all of the other great whites nearby.

Be some place else sharpish.

Effectively immediately they were in receipt of this warning message, each and every local great white turned tail and swam in the direction of elsewhere, population: no orcas. 1 shark in particular had a tracking tag and from that researchers were able to see him around the time of the alleged attack suddenly plunge to a depth of 500m and then hoon off at speed.

All the way to Hawaii.

Which is a lovely place to travel too for sure, but probably not if you’re so scared that you swim there non-stop from California.

This then is my idea:

Take the unhappy orcas from captivity and rehabilitate them into the wild off Western Australia. The great white sharks get the message that they should go some place else and Longworth72 gets to learn to surf in peace. For a bonus we take the money that would be spent on the baiting and the hooking, and we pour that into genuine research on sharks, orcas, suicide and the building of bridges for moose.

I’m already feeling zen about this.

From The Sea

  1. I would like to send all the great white sharks to another planet. I am the gatekeeper in my household as my significant other is…let’s say…not fond of even gazing upon an artist’s rendered image of an imaginary shark let alone stock film footage of a real one. Therefore, I need to be “on my game” 24/7 for any print ads, newspaper pictures, internet stories or television commercials featuring anything sharky. I myself have had my “Aha” moment with what passes for the ocean and its cleanliness – or lack thereof – in earlier times (May 24 2011 post) so there is no chance of my encountering either a shark or a whale unless it can be seen from the distance of a fine dining oceanside restaurant.

    • I sympathise with your significant other – It is hard to like sharks. I also took a wander back to May of 2011 and now fully understand your lack of love for the marine world. If you ever visit Perth, I’ll be happy to direct you to a number of ocean-side eateries, well out of range of harmful bacteria or any marine life that requires ‘a bigger boat.’

      • And if you ever visit the Philadelphia area I promise to make sure you view the Atlantic Ocean from a safe, respectful and oh-so-healthy distance.

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