Most people are afraid of sharks. The ocean’s top predator suffers from a bad image and is often described as a violent, bloodthirsty animal. But it is, in fact, much more fragile and friendly than one would think.
The so-called stroking tank has become the main attraction at Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum. Visitors can touch and stroke real sharks in this custom-made tank. The aim is to show that there is much more to the predator than what Hollywood thrillers would have us believe. First of all, there are many different kinds of sharks, from the striped cat-sharks, to the pyjama sharks of the spotted dogfish.
Some are aggressive but most don’t present a threat to mankind, quite the contrary: “Sharks are fragile because they are the ultimate predator,” says the Museum’s director, Robert Calcagno.
“They have no predators themselves. So over the past 450 million years, they have become extremely good at hunting but they are no good at self-defense. Most animals are able to reproduce rapidly. That’s not the case for sharks, which only produce a few young during each spawning period. Also, sharks only reach sexual maturity after several years, sometimes ten or fifteen years. So, in fact, sharks are bad at being prey.”
Of the 500 shark species known to man, one quarter is threatened with extinction. Sharks, on the other hand, don’t represent a big threat to humans. They are much less deadly than road accidents, mosquitoes or jellyfish, for instance.
“Less than 10 people are killed by sharks in the world each year, whereas crocodiles kill 2,000 people, snakes kill 100,000 people and mosquitoes kill 800,000. If you turn the tables, humans kill 100 million sharks every year,” says Robert Calcagno.
In order to combat the shark’s negative image, the museum is launching a new exhibition entitled 'On Sharks and Humanity', in collaboration with Parkview Arts Action and the non-profit association Wild Aid. Bringing together the works of 10 contemporary Chinese artists, the show explores the complex relationship between Man and shark.
Of the 100 million sharks killed each year, 60 million end up in Asia where they are used in shark fin soup.
“Our goal is not to have shark fishing banned, rather we want to ring the alarm bell,” says Chinese artist Zou Liang. “We’re not here to stop people from eating shark fins but the level of consumption has become unreasonable and needs to be be brought back under control. We must not destroy the shark’s food chain. The global shark population is dropping dramatically. Personally, I will no longer eat shark fins.”
Thanks to awareness campaigns like these, shark fin consumption has started to drop in China. As for the sharks, their eating habits seem rather reasonable in comparison, and what’s more, they are essential for the good health of our oceans.
“Sharks are all the way at the top of the ocean’s food chain. They play a vital, regulatory role. They eat sick animals and keep our oceans healthy. If sharks were to disappear, the balance of marine life would come under threat and our seas would gradually fill up with algae and jellylfish,” says the Museum’s Robert Calcagno.
‘On Sharks and humanity’ is on at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco until March next year, before moving to Beijing in 2016.