They are possibly the most misunderstood of all the sea creatures – apex predators capable of inspiring both fear and fascination in equal measure. But far from being the killing machines portrayed in the movies, most sharks are more at risk from us than we are from them.
Of the almost 400 species identified, only a dozen or so are considered dangerous to humans. We’re certainly not their preferred diet, but we can easily be mistaken for more tasty morsels such as seals. Statistically, we’re more likely to be killed by a rogue champagne cork than a shark. On average only 5 people are taken every year, whereas humans slaughter 100 million sharks annually, causing all sorts of problems.
Sharks are a natural part of the marine ecosystem. From their perch on top of the food chain, they help to maintain a balance in our oceans, preventing smaller species from overpopulating, which can then cause a ripple effect, threatening our delicate coral reefs.
And most of the time we don’t even know they are there. More often than not, sharks will actively try to avoid us when we venture into their territory. And while they populate the shoreline all around the Australian coast, Queensland numbers tend to increase in the winter months when their food sources move into the warmer waters.
They may not be as extrovert as the humpback whales, but grey nurse sharks cause just as much excitement amongst scientists. It’s estimated only 1500 of these animals still live off the East Coast of Australia giving them the unenviable status of critically endangered.
Part of the problem with the grey nurse sharks is they look fairly fearsome while remaining relatively sedate underwater – they’re often referred to as the Labradors of the sea due to their docile nature. But this has also made them easy targets for fishermen, with the grey nurse often snagged on hooks as they take up the offer of an easy feed. Added to which they are slow to mature and reproduce few young. While they are protected, it doesn’t stop accidental death at the hands of humans.
But marine biologists are studying the grey nurse and trying to figure out ways to help them to repopulate including banning fishing in areas they are known to congregate. Ocean Life Education’s Shark Discovery program looks at the issues facing endangered species like the grey nurse and tries to separate fact from fiction to make us finally appreciate that the greatest threat in the ocean is not from sharks but humans.