I'm two feet away from a great white shark, and I can count every one of its razor-sharp teeth. But even though I'm up close and personal with one of the most feared animals in the ocean, the only thing I'm scared about is whether the shark will be OK.
How exactly did I end up logging face time with this creature from the deep? After a lifetime of being fascinated by the sea (and sharks in particular), I got the chance to ride along on the the OCEARCH ship, a research vessel that tracks shark movements in the sea. I've spent years talking about the unfair bad rap that sharks have been saddled with — but in this moment, watching the scientists tag and catch sharks to learn crucial information about the species, I'm witnessing first hand just how much they need us.
Contrary to what you might have taken away from alarmist news stories or childhood viewings of Jaws, sharks are not a major threat to human beings. CNN reported that just six people died from shark attacks worldwide in 2015; for comparison, the Association For Safe International Road Travel reports that 37,000 people die in car accidents every year in the United States alone. Plain old commuting is far more dangerous than getting stuck in the shallows, as it were.
But while sharks make compelling villains in the movies, in real life, they're the ones who need saving — because they're constantly under threat. "We’re killing anywhere from 30-100 million sharks a year," George Burgess, director at the Florida Program for Shark Research, told Bustle.
Every shark sighting seems to bring with it panicked proposals to slaughter the local shark population. According to the Huffington Post, just this month, Massachusetts County Commissioner Ron Beaty proposed a shark cull after he grew concerned about shark sightings in Cape Cod, which he called "[a] clear and present danger to human life" on Facebook. One sighting that drew his alarm involved a shark eating a seal — aka, you know, what sharks are supposed to do.
"I would say that the fear of sharks is kind of an irrational fear that doesn't statistically exist," OCEARCH Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader Chris Fischer tells me via phone. "We do things in our every day life that are far more risky than worrying about a shark. Thousands of people drown a year. So the biggest thing you should be focused on if you go swimming in the ocean is making sure you know how to swim."
Despite this, sharks are subject to constant violent and unnecessary hunts by human beings. Beaty's proposal (which, to be clear, is not an actual piece of legislation) "entails use of baited drum lines being deployed near popular beaches using hooks designed to catch great white sharks. Large sharks found hooked but still alive are shot and their bodies discarded at sea." Shark culls — the act of mass killing sharks because of a perceived threat to human safety — have already been conducted for years in other parts of the world — but there's never been an official one in place in the U.S. Many species of sharks are protected from being hunted or killed in America, but fishing laws are murky and some sharks do end up being caught and killed in American waters illegally or otherwise. Adding a shark cull in the U.S. would be catastrophic to the delicately balanced oceanic ecosystem. Sadly, in other parts of the world, shark culls are already perfectly legal and encouraged. In fact, it was legal up until 2017 for fisherman to indiscriminately kill any shark they deemed threatening to people in Western Australia.
Because of all this needless fear, OCEARCH is doing for sharks what I've always wanted to do: Showing people that they aren't scary.
Thanks to sunglasses company Costa Del Mar, I got to watch the OCEARCH team catch and study sharks in person — and I can personally confirm that the scariest part of the OCEARCH shark expedition was the boat ride out from the shore to the larger ship. I was terrified I would fly overboard, we were hitting such big waves at a high speed; sharks were the least of my worries.
OCEARCH is doing something few other researchers are: They catch sharks, perform a series of tests on them (such as taking blood and other samples), and then tag them to be released back into the water and tracked via satellite tag.
On the day I joined the expedition, OCEARCH caught two young great whites about a year old. ("Young" means they're still four to five feet long, so basically as long as I am tall.) Fischer, the expedition leader, let the press members and guests come onto the platform to get up close with the second shark. It was one of those moments I won't ever forget: here I'd spent my whole life watching sharks on screen, and now there was one right in front of me. (Also, because I got 900 questions about this photo, the hose in its mouth is used to help the animal breathe out of the water.)
OCEARCH catches the sharks on a line and gently steers them by hand onto a submerged platform off the side of the boat. Then, the platform is raised up out of the water. Someone is there to hold the shark's tail while others are tasked with covering the shark's eyes with a wet towel and another dumps buckets of water on the animal to keep it hydrated. The team of scientists works quickly to collect their samples and measure the animal.
Then the satellite tracking tag is installed on the shark's fin and the platform is cleared, lowered, and the animal swims free. The whole process from the moment the shark is caught to the moment it swims away takes about 30 minutes. It's impressive to watch in person; everybody on the ship has a place and a duty, and it's all executed as quickly and efficiently as possible to get the shark back in the water with minimal stress.
Costa partnered with OCEARCH for its #DontFearTheFin campaign, which means if you buy something from Costa's limited edition OCEARCH collection, you're helping to fund this organization's critical research expeditions. Costa even has three former shark attack victims on board as part of their #DontFearTheFin campaign. If someone can actually get attacked by a shark and still want to protect them, that says something. (Also all three were participating in jobs or water sports activities that put them in the ocean all the time. They are not average beachgoers who randomly got attacked.)
And, while not everyone may be able to actually go on the boat to witness this first hand, OCEARCH is dedicated to bringing their research to everyone. In addition to developing class education guides for teachers to use, OCEARCH shares its scientific data free to the public via the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker app, which shows where the tagged sharks are in real time. Some of the sharks even have their own Twitter accounts. This is Mission, one of the sharks tagged on the trip I was on:
All of this makes the vital work OCEARCH is doing relatable and fun. They're destigmatizing sharks one day at a time. "I understand that [sharks] strike this primal chord with people," Fischer says. "But, that's when it's time to take a look at the information that's available and really follow the information and data — rather than allowing your emotions to run away from you when they're not really rooted in any sort of statistical or logical information."
Fischer knows that the fear of sharks is hard-wired in most people, but his organization is working to fight that with the facts. And, ultimately, he thinks things like Beaty's fear-mongering shark cull proposal for Massachusetts simply present an opportunity. It allows a window for conversation about how valuable sharks are and that they're necessary to participate in the delicately constructed marine food chain and keep the ocean ecosystem balanced.
So, you can track the sharks on OCEARCH's app to see where they are this Labor Day but don't let their location scare you. Sure, sharks are out to kill fish and seals and the like — and that may not always be pretty. But they're certainly not looking to kill you while you're enjoying the beach. So, it's time we all stop acting so afraid of the animal that actually desperately needs our help.