If you know me, if you really know me, you know that I love sharks. It’s not quite an obsession, but it might be an addiction. I mean, I L-O-V-E those “Men in Grey Suits” as they call ‘em in Oz. (And by “Oz” I mean “Australia.” Or “Straya” as some call it these days.) I have been a fan of these apex predators since childhood, but figure I would’ve fallen in love even if I hadn’t seen “Jaws” when I was about six or seven. What sort of parents let their young children watch what is essentially a seaborne slasher film? Awesome ones. Anyway, my younger brother and I started collecting plastic and rubber shark toys and re-enacting scenes from the movie with our Star Wars and Adventure People figures. There’s something endearing about two towheaded kids in the basement yelling “HE CAN’T STAY DOWN WITH THREE BARRELS! NOT WITH THREE BARRELS, HE CAN’T!” Yes, “Jaws” remains one of my top-three all-time-favorite movies (probably my #1) but it goes beyond that. Something primal makes me want to be an amateur marine biologist or oceanographer, just to learn as much as I can about these silent, deadly, beautiful beasts. I mean, I have a tattoo of a Megaladon tooth on my left arm, fer crissakes, and (to date) not one single Star Trek tattoo. That’s saying something, folks.
And then, 26 years ago, one of the most amazing events in television history debuted: Shark Week. Holy hell, it was like Discovery Channel had been monitoring my dreams and watching me masturbate (I’ve got some…issues, people. Don’t you dare judge me) and conceived the perfect week-long block of programming. Shows about sharks. Documentaries, Mythbusters episodes, etc. all flew out of the screen and landed in briny glory at my feet. You could tell back in those days that Discovery didn’t quite know what it had, and likely didn’t grasp how significant this annual (as it turned out) gem would be. Nowadays, Shark Week is arguably the most recognizable feature of the network’s programming, perhaps running a close second to Adam & Jaime’s Mythbusting exploits. I speak for a lot of folks when I say that I treat Shark Week the same way I treat the McRib. I know that it’s only going to manifest for a short time and then be ripped away again, like a wailing child from a mother’s teat. Actually, the McRib has helped me through many a lean, long winter between Shark Weeks, simply because I imagine that I am Bruce and the McRib is Quint’s delicious torso. I am a bit morbid. Don’t you dare judge me.
About that whole “maneater thing.” Peter Benchley (author of the novel upon which the Spielberg movie was based) has since bemoaned the fact that his book and subsequent film made a target of sharks. People demonized them even further, and took to the seas to hunt and, well…slaughter as many of these amazing animals as they could. It really did get grim there for a while. Add to that shark finning, which had been a tradition in many parts of the world and is (thankfully) becoming harder and harder to practice legally, and life hasn’t been too good for the pointy-serrated-toothed set. And then, wouldn’t you know it? A stingray goes and kills Steve Irwin. Guess who rays and skates are related to? Yep. Sharks. Goddam it, they can’t catch a break.
Fortunately, Discovery channel and others have been diligent with their education efforts and shark conservation has become a real thing. Shows like Discovery’s rival Nat Geo’s “Shark Men” have been educational (if a bit boring) and there are even great apps for shark lovers; I highly recommend the “Shark Bible” app from the Google Play store. While I was a bit disappointed to find that it wasn’t the actual Bible re-written to include more stories about Jesus swimming with sharks and tickling their bellies and such, it’s an exhaustive volume of details on just about any species of the class Chondrichthyes. Goblin shark? In there. Black Tip? In there. Cloudy catshark? Yep. Got it.
Now, the big question you’re asking: why the hell should I care what happens to a bunch of fish? Especially ones that bite people? Ahem. I’m sure you’ve heard the stats about how you’re more likely to be struck and killed by falling coconuts (150 deaths annually) than sharks (4.2 deaths annually. WORLD-WIDE.) Okay, maybe you don’t care because you never go to the ocean anyway. (BTW, that boggles my mind…the number of people I know that have never even seen than ocean, ANY ocean, much less set foot in one.) Okay, smarty pants, then how about this: apex predators are good harbingers for the state of their particular environment. In other words, look what happened when we killed off all the wolves. The deer and rabbit populations exploded, spread disease and ate a bunch of crops. Hunting becomes not only a luxury but a necessity, even going so far as modern-day “group kills” at National Parks. Now imagine you kill off all the sharks. Great! All the tuna we can eat! Except it’s not just tuna. It’s craptastic fish you’d never want to eat. It’s zebra mussels clogging ports and working inland to muck up reservoirs and our locks and dams. It’s a million seals in New York harbor, requiring a massive seal-kill just to get to the port (ask anyone who’s been to the wharf in San Francisco about the sea lions that took over.) It’s smart-ass dolphins and squids running around like THEY OWN THE GODDAM PLACE. It’s horrible.
So do your part. Get involved. Boycott places that serve shark-fin soup. (So far, I’ve only found one in Indiana: the Oriental Inn Restaurant in Indianapolis serves it at $12 a pop, which apparently feeds two.) Stay away from deep-sea fishing charters that go on “shark hunts.” Or at least make sure that they use the whole damned shark, not just stuff it and mount it. I mean, come on: do like the Native Americans. Use the meat for shark steaks, the jaws for tourist schmaltz, the cartilage for old people’s joints, and the skin for any number of things including (but not limited to) cool suits for Ray Liota and Joe Pesci (which is odd, because “Pesci” looks like it means “fish.” Weird.) And keep swimming, folks, because Shark Week is only 188 days away…