Why are sharks so misunderstood?

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Sharks have a bad rep. Thanks in no small part to Steven Spielberg, who cleverly played on our primordial fears with his blockbuster thriller Jaws, these majestic creatures are generally thought of as little more than mindless killing machines.

(BBC One), the Natural History Unit’s spectacular new three-part documentary coinciding with Jaws’ 40th anniversary, aims to change that.

Rather than portraying sharks as bloodthirsty predators bent on terrorising human beings at, say, a New England beach resort, the opening instalment went to great lengths to improve their PR.

Great white sharks have developed extraordinary abilities to track their prey Photo: BBC

Two years in the making, this was a hymn to their intelligence, teamwork – and eccentricity.

A wobbegong shark seen near Sydney, Australia

Indeed, much of the episode focused on the sharks with the most fascinating quirks. Take, for instance, the fantastically named tasselled wobbegong.

A master of disguise, this bizarre species of carpet shark is able to camouflage itself against the coral reefs, where it lies in wait, its glinting tail mimicking a small fish to lure prey in.

“It’s beeee-hiiiind yoooouuu,” said narrator Paul McCann in a jarringly jaunty tone, as the shark finally pounced in glorious close-up.

There was also neat footage of a goblin shark, a hideous brute whose jaws come hurtling out of its head in a manner reminiscent of the phallic monster in the Alien franchise.

The Greenland shark, meanwhile, cut a forlorn figure. Living for up to 200 years and found at depths of 2,200 metres below sea level, these squinting, manatee-like creatures drift along in solitude, the surface of their eyes chewed on by parasites until they go completely blind. Theirs is a particularly plaintive existence.

A ragged tooth shark swimming off the coast of North Carolina

Just as captivating was a balletic sequence involving a gathering of blacktips. Working together like a pack of wolves, they herded a shoal of 10 million anchovies and suddenly unleashed hell. It was a massacre.

Elsewhere, we saw a mako, the fastest of all 510 species of shark, capable of swimming at 46 miles per hour, giving chase to a speedboat. (“Think of it as a torpedo with teeth,” said McCann.)

A in murky water off the coast of South Africa

It wasn’t until the end of the programme, though, that the great white made its grand entrance. To watch these ferocious aquatic titans hunt down seals with ruthless efficiency is to witness a force of nature; one that inspires as much awe as it does terror.

Strange, then, that a soporific quality was allowed to permeate this scene; McCann’s meek delivery felt in stark contrast to the thrashing, primeval nature of a great white. Still, it goes without saying that the NHU – who spent a total of 2,646 hours underwater – have conjured something beautiful here. Maybe it’s time for a new sequel, Jaws: a Tail of Redemption.

This article was first published by The Telegraph on 07 May 2015.


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Jane McConnell

There is only one mindless killing machine on earth – man.

Doris Charles

I think people should stay out of the water where sharks lurk, the earth is changing rapidly with global warming .

Teresa Bonelli

Esta demostrado que el unico peligro para el Tiburon y para los animales en genral es el humano,el primer lugar de humano peligroso para el Tiburon lo ocupa el hombre chino,que inventa panaceas y mata ,yo le diria al señor Spielberg que sus peliculas no se condicen con la realidad..son exactamente lo contrario.

Iain Gibson

It's not wholly unscientific to call a shark, metaphorically, a mindless killing machine. Just like any other predator from a Sparrowhawk to an African Lion, it has to kill on a regular basis to survive. The Jaws films rather depicted a tendency for humans to react with violence at the slightest opportunity for the most feeble reason. As the only species known to possess consciousness, we appear to be mindful killing machines. It's not only Steven Spielberg but Alfred Hitchcock who's got a lot to answer for. How often do we hear the words "It was like a scene from… Read more »