Sharks do not eat people. The media continue to be fascinated by these monsters of the deep, yet fewer people are injured by sharks than by, say, murderously falling coconuts.
However, sharks are big animals with sharp teeth, and if one chose to feel you, as a baby feels things with its mouth, the results could be catastrophic.
It may not eat you (give it another million years or so to acquire the taste) but you have a good chance of bleeding to death, or drowning.
It could be argued that dogs are just as dangerous, but that were used to them. We avoid the aggressive-looking ones and ignore those led by old ladies. This is the thrust of Erich Ritters book, Understanding Sharks.
I met Ritter in 1999 at Walkers Cay in the Bahamas, where Gary Adkinson had set up a chumsicle feed for reef sharks and later started feeding the bull sharks.
We attracted some magnificent specimens to the shallows by baiting the water, and snorkelled with them while Gary kept them interested with dead fish. I was able to get close-up photographs, but was always careful not to appear to compete with the sharks for the bait.
I know what happens when you try to take a bone from a spaniel.
Ritter, on the other hand, was intent on doing stunts, snatching the bait away as a shark was about to eat it, or standing on the bait to deny the shark.
He gave me all sorts of reasons why he was perfectly safe. Nor did he get bitten - not that time, anyway.
Erich Ritter is a self-proclaimed shark behaviourist. As he seems to be the only shark behaviourist, this gives him leave to invent all sorts of technical terms that reveal his German background.
Angstination is one example - the combination of fear and fascination that people may have for sharks.
Ritter is an expert and I am only a witness. He draws diagrams that reveal the sharks Inner Circle. I translate that as get too close and look threatening and the shark might warn you off. You dont want to be warned off by something with lots of teeth.
He says a shark normally swims up and past you. Well, it would, wouldn't it? If it swims up to you and doesn't swim past, it's goodnight nurse!
Most of the pictures in the book are from Walkers Cay. The bull sharks that congregate there each winter are impressively large and Ritter has got used to jumping in with them.
It is safe to swim with sharks if youre sensible about it, but its different swimming with those that are chasing injured fish to those looking for carrion in a relaxed way. Sharks close their eyes (to protect them) when they bite, which can make their aim less than accurate.
Erich Ritter continually puts himself in the firing line in pursuit of proving that it is safe to swim with feeding sharks. He has not been eaten, but he has lost one calf (and nearly his life), which would be enough for most of us.
This book sets out to rationalise what he does. It carries some useful information, including theories of previously recorded shark accidents. He discusses exploratory bites and his intentions are good - he wants sharks top be saved from extinction.
And extinction is a real possibility, thanks to a massive Asian shark-finning industry that supplies 1.3 billion people who want to eat sharkfin soup. (Ironically, this book is printed in China).
I still think that feeding sharks need to be treated with healthy respect. Be a neutral observer, by all means, but try not to get involved.
What I think this book goes some way to understanding is Erich Ritter!
John Bantin
  • Understanding Sharks by Erich Ritter (Krieger Publishing Co, ISBN 1575242699) Hardback, 280pp, $59.50

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