PHOTO: Terry Goss
PHOTO: Terry Goss

By ILONA BRAY

They’re the largest predatory fish on the planet, having been swimming the oceans since before the days of the dinosaur. Their mouths contain 250 or more serrated teeth, which can chomp down with two tons of force. And they’re . . . intelligent and sociable?

Well, okay, you might not want to cuddle up to a great white shark, but they’re among the world’s most misunderstood creatures. Ever since the horror movie Jaws (with that famous two-note “dunh-DUNH, dun-DUNH” theme tune), great whites have been feared, hated, and hunted to the point where they’ve been named an endangered species.

Here are some myths and facts about the great white:

Myth: They’ll eat people any chance they get.

Fact: Sharks that take a “test bite” of a human have been known to spit us right back out. Human swimmers and surfers just aren’t fatty enough, and are too full of bones. Seals, which have a nice thick layer of blubber, are great whites’ favorite menu items, as well as fish and rays. The problem for us humans is that those “test bites” can be deadly, so if you find yourself in the water with a great white, get out!

Myth: They’re pea-brained killers.

Fact: Like many higher mammals (humans included), great white sharks do eat meat. And their brains aren’t huge, weighing about 1 1/2 ounces—less than a popsicle. But their brains make them very good at what they do, including smelling and sighting prey, and maybe cooperating with each other to catch it (scientists are still studying that one). Great whites live peacefully with each other, sometimes hanging out in an area between Hawaii and Mexico so popular that it’s called the “shark café.” They’re believed to communicate using a complex body language, for example by moving their fins or arching their back.

Myth: The world would be a better place without sharks.

Fact: Great whites are important for environmental balance, because of their role as “top predators.” Although it sounds odd, scientists have found that if sharks stopped eating animals like seals and rays, those animals would grow in number to where they could nearly wipe out some smaller species, such as fish, clams and scallops. Plus, the sharks’ leftovers provide food for scavenging fish and birds. More sharks actually leads to more fish and healthier coral reefs! Meanwhile, the number of people who die from shark attacks is tiny compared to the numbers killed by snakes, elephants, and mosquitoes.

——

Want to help the great white shark? They sure need it. They’re often killed by fisherman after being accidentally caught in their nets. Worse yet, some are caught on purpose, only to have their fin cut off for “shark fin soup” (a delicacy in Asia). Then they’re left in the ocean to bleed to death. Here are some things you can do:

• Never buy, and ask your family members not to buy, souvenirs made out of shark parts. When traveling to beaches or resorts, for instance, you might see jewelry made of shark teeth, or shark leather belts.

• Check out the websites or Facebook pages of organizations working to protect sharks, like the National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org), the Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org) or the World Wildlife Fund (www.worldwildlife.org). Join in when they suggest actions like writing letters to your Congresspersons to help stop destructive actions like shark finning. Or, collect money to “adopt” a shark.

• Help keep the oceans healthy. Don’t litter on the beach, and join in a beach cleanup if you can.

• Tell your friends what you’ve learned!