Bird Watching: Making Your Safari Way More Awesome

Juvenile Bataleur Eagle
Picture: An immateur Bataleur Eagle taken at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Thea Beckman (2015)

It can be said without a doubt that bringing a bird with you on your safari makes it way more awesome. Especially if said bird looks tight in a bikini. You can share in the joy of spotting that elusive leopard, watching cheetah chase ill-fated gazelle across the savannah and being stranded in a herd of elephant; desperately hoping that amorous-looking bull doesn’t take a fancy to your Jeep. But I’m not talking about THAT kind of bird. Birds, the feathered variety, are awesome. And the next time you drive home from Magaliesberg feeling short-changed because you didn’t see any lions AGAIN, perhaps you’d better start thinking about becoming a twitcher.

Bird-watching: A Definition

African Birds and safari 6
Green-spotted dove, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

I’ve harboured a deep interest in birds since I can remember. Some people are addicted to nicotine, amphetamines or Robert Pattinson. I love bird watching. I really do. And I’m pretty sure that, psychologically, it has something to do with a love of collecting meaningful things. Every time my family would go for a weekend, week’s or month’s vacation somewhere in southern Africa, I would make and keep a list of the different species of birds we identified during the course of that holiday.

Bird watching and safari
This trusty field book has travelled with me all over southern Africa and bears the dirty smudges, rugged braai (barbecue) smears and cheap brandy stains to prove it.

 You experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when you saw a lion on your African adventure. I experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Violet-eared Waxbill at the Karoo National Park. Partly because, against the drab semi-arid landscape, it is one of the most beautifully coloured creatures you could ever imagine; something straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And partly because this particular species of waxbill didn’t appear on the Karoo National Park’s bird list, meaning that we were the first to report seeing it there. Essentially, we made history.

I See Your Lion and Raise You a Bataleur Eagle

Bataleur Eagle
Mature bataleur eagle, Kruger National Park in South Africa. Picture by Thea Beckman.

I experienced another shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Drakensberg Prinia in Pilgrim’s Rest; a Pallid Harrier at the Blyde River Canyon; a Collared Sunbird at the Nelspruit Botanical Gardens; a Striped Cuckoo at the Pilansberg Nature Reserve outside Rustenberg and again when I saw a flock of Southern Bald Ibises in the Drakensberg. None of these are particularly striking birds – except perhaps the Bald Ibis, whose head resembles an unmentionable male body part. But they were all new! I had never seen them before! It’s like discovering the Mufasa marble in your Engen Garage lucky packet back in the day when the Lion King and marbles were all the rage.

For the record, the Lion King was, is and always will be awesome.

Identifying a brand new bird and ticking it off in your book may sound completely nerdy, inane and lame. But it actually makes you feel amazing; like you’ve accomplished something. It’s a tiny intellectual victory and one of those ingredients that makes life rich and exciting.

I saw a brand new species of bird!

You saw a lion.

I saw a Crowned Eagle!

You saw another lion.

I saw a Giant Eagle Owl!

You saw (oh wow!) another lion.

I saw a Carmine Bee-eater.

You saw (surprise) a lion!

Lion yawning 2

For every one species of awesome animal you see on safari. I see 10, maybe 20 different species of birds. This is no war, my friends. No competition. The point I’m trying to make here is that if you can culture and develop an appreciation and then a love of identifying birds, you can get so much more out of any holiday, any getaway and any safari experience. You’ll also totally impress your chick who, through your appreciation of soft feathered creatures, will see your softer and more vulnerable side.

And then you’ll get to show her your softer and more vulnerable body parts.

 Kgalagadi Case Study, August to September 2009

African Birds and safari 8.png
African Ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) enjoy an eclectic diet of roots, seeds, insects, pods, fruits, grains, bird eggs, small vertebrates and pink marshmallows.

Many years ago, I went on a 10-day vacation to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which straddles the three borders of Namibia, Botswana and the Northern Cape. The bird list I had kept for that holiday totalled 106 different species. The animal list I made totalled 12. Actually, it was more like 11. Animal #12, which we thought was a leopard prowling around the camp at night, turned out to be nothing more than my mother’s snoring. Or so we suspected after three consecutive nights of rhythmic zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg-ing, which is actually quite similar to a leopard’s cough-like grunting.

We saw ONE lion that entire holiday. And it was a female so pregnant with zebra meat that she had hitched a leg up onto the bole of the acacia tree she was food coma-ing under in order to make more space for her distended gut. She didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at the rocks we were throwing at her to get her to move.

I am, of course, just kidding.

On that same trip, we spotted a beautiful Giant Eagle Owl in her nest in broad daylight; identified the tiny Pygmy Falcon killing machine; heard the haunting yelps of Pearl-Spotted Owls at night and kept the campsite company of the flamboyantly coloured Burchell’s starling.

African Birds and safari 5
The handsome Burchell’s starling, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Class Dismissed: The Take-Home Message

African Birds and safari 7
Wahlberg’s Eagle? Malachite Kingfisher? Violet-eared Waxbill? Now that’s a handsome bird list…

I have always kept bird lists for the various holidays our family has been on. I also keep a list of animals on the occasions we go to wildlife reserves. Every single time, my list of different bird species, which has often stretched into the hundreds, dwarfs the list of different animal species. Nothing can be more exciting than actually spotting a leopard in a tree, seeing cheetah in action or watching a hippo emerge from the water (or doing that funny tail-thing when they poop.) But to go on safari and never notice the activity constantly going on around you, in the bushes, in the trees, on the ground, in the sky… well you are cheating yourself out of 90% of the fees you paid at the park entrance.

Open your eyes friends.

And whatever you do. Never, ever sit under a hornbill perched in a tree. They have impeccable aim.

African Birds and safari
Zazu, I mean, Yellow-billed hornbill, Kruger National Park in South Africa
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What's In a Name? Bad Science, That's What

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I have ever read is called ‘Bad Science’ and it’s by Ben Goldacre, an Oxford and London-trained doctor who also dedicates much of his time to writing and broadcasting. In his book, he takes a look at many different products and technologies that have more than just blithely sailed under the radar of good science: they’ve gone on to make their manufacturers billions upon billions of dollars in profits.

Ben Goldacre Bad Science
A must-read for anyone and everyone. Dr. Ben Goldacre revives the ailing enquiring mind by exposing the methodology of corporations using ‘science’ to sell. He runs an interesting blog too, which you can check out at http://www.badscience.net.

Any woman (or her husband) will know that when it comes to buying face cream, there are price discrepancies that could feed an impoverished third world country for a week. A 200ml tub of Nivea Crème, or cream if you had to drop the pretence, costs in the region of $3 and is readily available from Clicks, Boots or any other supermarket or pharmacy. I consider this a bargain. Chanel sells a face cream – ostentatiously named Precision Sublimage Serum Essential Regenerating Cream – that, at $375, is one hundred times more expensive. But Chanel is far from the costliest on the market. According to http://www.totalbeauty.com (at the time of writing)

Guerlain’s Orchidee Imperiale Cream Next Generation goes for *cough* $410-$420

Why? Because it contains special ‘molecular extract’ from orchids.

Orlane Crème Royale goes for *choke* $650

Why? Because it contains 24-carat gold and royal jelly (bee’s glandular secretion.)

Expensive face creams
Orlane Crème Royale goes for $650 a pot owing to its content of bee secretion and 24-carat bullshit, I mean, gold.

But the prize has to go to La Prairie Cellular Cream Platinum Rare, at *faint* $1,200, which is more than the standard income of a middle class South African.

Why, Larry, Why? Because its key ingredient is platinum, one of the rarest elements in the Earth’s crust, which not surprisingly goes for around $1,240 per fine ounce at the time of writing.

Against all Common Sense and Rationality, Platinum Will Make You Look Younger

Wow, impressive! No wonder it’s expensive. With ingredients that require the processing of thousands of acres of expensive and rare flowers, or thousands of tonnes of ore, it’s really no wonder that a tiny pot of cream is so damn expensive. MY question is what on EARTH is platinum going to do for my skin? Platinum is a totally stable and non-reactive metal that, even at high temperatures, is non-corrosive. So coating your face with it may prevent you from rusting IF you were the tin-man from The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve no doubt that the chemists, cellular biologists and other specialists these multi-billion dollar corporations have working for them could explain how vanilla extract might prevent the early signs of skin aging, or how 24-carat gold might make my face look more radiant. But I’m even more certain that there are abundant cheaper alternatives that do EXACTLY the same thing. Under a microscope, vitamin E oil from rare orchids that grow exclusively on the island of Madagascar looks exactly the same as vitamin E oil from something as commonplace as sunflowers.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

expensive face creams

Keeping your skin looking healthy and young is about keeping it hydrated, which also means staying out the sun and avoiding habits such as tobacco smoking. And Dr. Ben Goldacre explains this beautifully in Chapter 3 of his book Bad Science (seriously, give it a read!) If you look at the list of ingredients on the tubs of these various moisturizing creams, there is almost zero different between the $3 tub of Nivea and $300 tub of Chanel. The difference that can be found lies in the addition of super strange and exotic ingredients that are almost always impossibly hard to find. You’re also paying for the brand name, which I can assure you does sweet FA for your skin.

It’s the schism between science and society that enables these cosmetic companies (and many, many other big brand names) to charge you an obscene amount of money for products that are essentially the same as their inexpensive and unpretentious counterparts. Trust me. If it had to be shown in a number of controlled scientific trials that, for example, gibbon ejaculate could reduce the evidence of aging more effectively than your standard moisturizer’s ingredients, I’m sure it would be huge news, complete with captivating headlines…

“Monkey Comes to the Rescue of Your Aging Skin”

“The Fountain of Youth Discovered!”

Refuse those highly processed headlines and do the truth-seeking yourself. And the next time you consider spending more than $50 on face cream, ask yourself how many monkeys were touched inappropriately to bring this product to you.

angry funny gibbon monkey

Virus Apocalypse: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Sneezes 

Ebola Virus outbreak 2

There is little else on this Earth quite as chilling as hearing that there has been an outbreak of the Ebola virus. It brings crashing to mind all of those terrifying movies depicting a world ravaged by a fierce virus for which there is no vaccination, no cure and a meagre chance of survival. Almost two years ago, however, the horror of Hollywood imagination made its real life debut in a handful of countries in West Africa and this appearance by one of the world’s worst viruses known to man has left the local population shattered and terrified.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), we faced the worst outbreak in recorded history and the death toll increased daily. With this shocking realisation in mind come many questions: what is the Ebola virus? How at risk is the rest of the world to contracting this pathogen and what actually happens to the body once it’s infected? Let’s take a look at the microscopic douche bag that effortlessly, in as little as a few short weeks, showed up mankind for our frailty.

Now Might Be the Time to Cancel that Trip to West Africa 

west-africa-Ebola outbreak distribution-map

Source: World Health Organisation (WHO), Ebola Response Roadmap, February 11th 2015

If you have impending travel plans for Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia, now might be the time to reconsider. Your journey of a lifetime might just become your last. At the last count (December 27th 2015) WHO reported that 28,637 people had been officially diagnosed with the Ebola virus in these countries, with 11,315 having succumbed to it.

A 40% death rate might not seem like the apocalyptic scenario you’d associate with an end-of-the-world type virus… that is, until you put yourself in the worn sandals of some poor West African soul. Imagine your doctor telling you that your chance of surviving your illness is 60%! I’d give up all vestiges of civilized behaviour and kill myself with red wine and tequila before that miserable virus could have a chance to get hold of my internal organs. If you think 40% is bad, however, consider the fact that the death rate of the Zaire Ebolavirus has been as high as 90% in the past:

  • 71% in 2007: 187 people dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 90% in 2003: 128 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 75% in 2001-2002: 44 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 88% in 1976: 280 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo

I don’t care how democratic it is, I’m SO removing Congo from my travel plans!

So, while it might sound completely ridiculous to say, the people in the affected areas are at least a little lucky in some glass-half-full kind of way. I do understand this is hard to appreciate when you are bleeding out your bum.

This brings us to the profile of a pathogen so nasty and malicious, it would have had a glittering career in Hitler’s SS.

Profile of a Serial Killer

Ebola virus under microscope

The Ebola virus belongs to a nasty, sadistic family of pathogens called the Flioviridae that essentially cause the body to haemorrhage uncontrollably – that is, to bleed internally and externally and all-aroundernally. There are five different species of Ebola virus, because for some God-forsaken reason one isn’t enough. They are:

  1. Zaire Ebolavirus (EBOV)
  2. Sudan Ebolavirus (SUDV)
  3. Bundibugyo Ebolavirus (BDBV)
  4. Reston Ebolavirus (RESTV)
  5. Taï Forest Ebolavirus (TAFV)

Historically, the three problematic strains of this virus have been the Bundibugyo, the Sudan and the Zaire ebolavirus, the latter of which has been wreaking havoc in West Africa since February 2014. The other two species are, interestingly enough, not typically associated with large outbreaks. In fact, RESTV in particular hasn’t been known to kill anyone ever. Amateur.

A Little Aside: The Ebola virus was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here in 1976 that the first recorded outbreak occurred.

How Is Ebola Transmitted?

Ebola virus outbreak

You catch Ebola by somehow ingesting the bodily fluids of an infected person. This, given the virus’ tendency to cause flu-like symptoms, uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting, is mighty difficult to avoid, especially if you are living in close proximity to the sick person. And this is precisely why the virus tends to spread so quickly amongst family members and to the medical physicians who are trying to treat these patients. Given the lack of proper, sterile medical infrastructure in these poor West African countries and the strange burial ceremonies honoured there (involving kissing and touching the corpses of loved ones passed), this virus is having an utter field day.

Thankfully, in the midst of all the carnage, there’s the fact that the Ebola virus isn’t airborne. That means you can’t get it from breathing in the same air as someone who is infected, so you don’t need to fear the zombie apocalypse the next time some stranger sneezes. Just keep your mouth close and wash your hands regularly.

Symptoms and Signs Your Wife Might Be Cashing In Your life Insurance Policy Soon

Ebola Virus outbreak 4

Once infected, it could take you as little as a few days or as long as three weeks to start showing symptoms. You’ll feel like crap and probably think you have some kind of flu with symptoms that include achy muscles, a monster headache, fever and a sore throat. Meanwhile beneath the surface of your skin all hell is breaking loose…

Ebola takes up residence inside your body’s cells where it begins its merry task of replicating. Once one has become two, they erupt out of their host cell, completely destroying it in the process. This tiny asshole then starts secreting a kind of protein known as “ebolavirus glycoprotein,” which coats the interior walls of your blood vessels, disintegrating them and leaving them more leaky than a submarine with air vents.

Ebola also impedes your blood’s ability to clot, so you essentially become haemophilic… unable to stop bleeding. One sneeze can initially cause your nose to erupt in a crimson plume of infection, while an accidental bump could leave you looking like you escaped a marriage with Mike Tyson. Eventually, if you survive the fever, dehydration, rashes and swelling long enough to experience the next merry phase of the illness, your blood will start to seep out of your blood vessels in a whole-body internal and external haemorrhage. That’s right. You’ll have blood seeping out of your eyes, nose, gums, ears and other unmentionable bodily orifices.

The next few stops on the Ebola train include disseminated intravascular coagulation, shock and then death.

It’s utterly terrifying.

Where Are Your White Blood Cells When You Need Them?

White blood cells

The reason the Ebola virus has such a high death rate is because it is as keen a master of offence as it is of defence. It actually prevents the white blood cells from “hearing” your body’s natural defence alarm. So while the virus completely destroys your body, your white blood cells – the little guys responsible for protecting your body – are just hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and hitting on platelets. But wait, it gets worse (or more hilarious depending on how morbid your sense of humour is): the Ebola virus remains so undetected by your immune system that it will actually hitch a ride on your white blood cells to other parts of the body. This explains its rapid spread to all of the body’s major organs and systems.

Sweet Jesus, tell me there’s something modern medicine can do to treat it!

Unfortunately, no. There is no cure and no vaccine for the Ebola virus. In fact, scientists are only now beginning to understand how it works, spreads and wreaks so much havoc on the body. I can imagine that the response from lab technicians willing to volunteer to do the necessary research on live virus specimens must be underwhelming.

I know I’d bunk work that day.

Homer Simpson Woohoo!

The only thing doctors can do for Ebola virus patients is keep them comfortable, hydrated and clean. It’s up to your body to do the rest, which is why it’s the strong who typically survive this virus.

Where Did the Ebola Virus COME From?

There is a very important field of specialty dedicated to understanding the origin and spread of harmful pathogens and it’s called “epidemiology.” By pinpointing the origin of a particular virus, we can understand HOW it spreads and therefore how to minimize this spread. It is also possible to infer from the point of origin the necessary clues to develop a treatment or vaccine.

In the case of the Ebola virus, the origin is believed to be fruit bats of the family Pteropodidae and genera Myonycteris torquata, Epomops franqueti and Hypsignathus monstrosus. What causes such devastation to us humans bumbles around quite harmlessly within the living tissues of these rodent aviators. The actual transmission of the virus occurs when someone gets the bright idea to have a bat barbecue or sandwich.

Unfortunately, bats are quite popular on the menu in West Africa.

Cute fruit bat

How could you eat that face?

The Ebola virus has also been documented in monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and even certain antelope. The problem here is that uneducated people from the villages in these remote areas have no idea of the danger they put themselves in when they come across a dead animal in the forest. They don’t see the harm in prodding it, eating it, or bringing it home with them for whatever reason. They have no idea that swimming around within the coagulating vessels of this deceased creature is a deadly virus that could lay complete waste to their village in a matter of weeks.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Ebola Virus outbreak 3

When diagnosing the Ebola virus, doctors are instructed to first rule out a host of other potentially fatal illnesses, including the PLAGUE. You know a sickness is really bad when it could be confused with the plague, for crying out loud! And bad the Ebola virus is. To date and at the time of writing, more than 28,000 people are estimated to have been infected in the outbreak in West Africa.

The take-home message of this particular blog on the Ebola virus could pertain to any lethal virus, I suppose. While there are things we can do to help patients fight off infection and emerge victorious (with one hell of a story to tell the grandchildren), we have to be fully cognisant of the irony that something so small – something invisible – could utterly destroy one of the most successful species on the planet. All we can do is hope that a virus similar in action to the Ebola, but deadlier and more uncontrollable in its spread never, ever makes it out of the dark recesses of our planet.

So, kids, wash your hands before you eat and no matter how tempted you are to try new things, never order bat off the menu.

Prehistoric Life: A Time When Size Really, Really Did Count

From flying insects that would cave in your car’s bumper to a snake that, at an average 50 feet (15m) long, could easily have eaten a herd of cows for breakfast… there are some pretty large animals to have roamed the Earth in its history and this amazing science video takes us on a journey through them. It also provides us with a relative scale, so that we can appreciate just how f***ing huge they are in comparison with our own tiny selves. Just do yourself a favour and turn your computer’s volume off, because the accompanying music will make you want to bludgeon yourself to death with a brick.

Video Source: “World’s 10 Biggest Animals of All Time” Uploaded by Hybrid Librarian on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/qVftGh4K8JA

Warning: This Video is a SERIOUS Nail-Biter!

Video Source: “GoPro: Man Fights Off Great White Shark In Sydney Harbour” Uploaded by Terry Tufferson on YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=-m3N_BnVdOI

In the spirit of sharks – see yesterday’s post “Sharks, They’re Just Not That Into You” – check out this TERRIFYING GoPro video caught by a very lucky Sydneysider. OH WAIT! I’ve just been told by a few of my reader’s it’s a fake. Great.

Regardless, I’d like to say the following…

Great White Sharks and sharks in general suffer from a bad rap thanks to sensationalist movies such as “Jaws,” “Open Water” and “Deep Blue Sea.” What we have to remember is that IF these creatures viewed humans as prey, their rating on the list of things that are likely to kill you wouldn’t come in under falling coconuts and bad-tempered cows.

Sharks are bullet-sharp killing mechanisms: it’s how they’ve adapted to life in the ocean and it’s how they have come to dominate the food chain. However, and thankfully, humans are not their natural prey. Just as you wouldn’t wander down to the garden to gorge on tree leaves for breakfast, sharks don’t go looking for pudgy human meat to eat. It is more often than not a case of mistaken identity that lands the odd surfer or early morning swimmer in the ER with a missing limb.

Respect the ocean as you would respect any other wilderness and you’ll hold on to all four of your limbs, but more importantly, you’ll avoid further bad press for these gorgeous and powerful creatures.

Bonobo Chimpanzees: A Lesson In Immodesty

Bonobo Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, genetically speaking. More interesting than that though: they’ve mastered the art of conflict resolution in a most curious and salacious way! Anytime things get heated… well, Bonobo chimps get heated too and then the conflict is resolved!

Please note that there are scenes of a graphic nature in this video, and if you’ve ever doubted our relationship with apes, this video may finally convince you otherwise!

Video Source: “Wild Wives of Africa – Bonobos” uploaded by NatGeoWild on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/82GUjPConiE

Bonobo Chimpanzees are incredibly sexually liberated and use this intimate act (homosexually and heterosexually) as a way to express just about every emotion. If there’s one thing to be said for this, they certainly spend more time bonking than fighting! What’s also interesting to see in this video is just how humanoid their behaviour is.

It gives credence to the adage: Make love not war!

Sharks – They’re Just Not That Into You

Shark fin above water

When I step into the ocean, the furthest thing from my mind is getting eaten by a shark. There are so many other, more obvious things to think and worry about: getting laid, venereal disease, not getting a venereal disease from getting laid…

Hell, even falling coconuts are more likely to boot you out of this mortal coil than the love bite of a big fish. Yet, I know many people personally who are utterly terrified of sharks. I even had a girlfriend once who made a point of waiting to see whether the water was safe before getting in herself. And she did this by stationing herself on the beach while I cavorted around in the waves for a good ten minutes. When I didn’t disappear in a frothy explosion of blood and surf, she would sidle surreptitiously in and make sure to stay within two metres of the shore.

I dumped her shortly after.

Shark movie poster.png

Most of what we know about sharks comes from their portrayal by movies such as Jaws (1, 2 and 3), Open Water, Deep Blue Sea and a smattering of awful, completely scientifically inaccurate low budget films, a more recent one being the truly horrendous Sharknado and now Sharknado 2. Sweet Lord, as if one wasn’t enough! I can assure you that the last thing on a shark’s mind while being flung through the air by freak atmospheric whirlwinds is food.

True, a horror film about head bludgeoning coconuts probably wouldn’t clean up at the box office, but sharks really do get a bad rap from our insatiable appetite for being terrified in the comfort of our own homes while shovelling fistfuls of popcorn into our face holes. The fact of the matter is, sharks really aren’t that into you! And they’re as misunderstood as men with moustaches.

A hairy lip does not a paedophile make.

Creepy moustache guy

Shark Attack! Or Is It?

My good friend Christopher Reeves – marine biologist by day, superhero by night – raised this incredibly exigent point during one of our many intellectual and totally debauched conversations. Rather it was an exercise he regularly brings up with the bright volunteers that help out at the Seymour Marine Discovery Centre at which he works in Santa Cruz, California. He asks his students to close their eyes and imagine swimming in a cold, dark ocean and I’m going to ask you to do the same right now.

Imagine the feel of the cold salty water gripping your legs, arms and torso and the yawning depths of merciless dark seawater beneath you. A shark is nearby. The hairs on your neck stand up and an atavistic fear clutches at your breast. Imagine the shark: its lines, its inky black eyes, its snout, its rows of jagged, broken teeth.

Did the shark you pictured in your imagination look like this?

Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in an attack

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)

I would put my money on the vast majority of your answers being “yes”. This is a great white shark… the one made famous by Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, Jaws, and later by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film adaptation. MOST of the subsequent pant-soiling movies made about these fish are based upon the man-eating rampages of this very same species. So, it’s no wonder that our fear of sharks is not actually of the group as a whole, but specifically of great whites. It’s the reason they’re also referred to as “white death.”

Shark Diversity

In reality, the great white is only one of more than 470 different species of sharks in the oceans that comprise 70% of our planet’s surface. And these species are as diverse in habitats, diets and vocations as the crowds that make up a gay pride march. Great whites are amongst the largest species we know of, but sharks come in all shapes and sizes. Many species could easily fit in a paddle pool or even in a fish tank, while the biggest sharks – the whale shark and the basking shark – don’t even eat big fish or seals! Like baleen whales, they trawl the ocean with their mouths wide open, filtering the water for tiny plankton, crab larvae, krill, squid and micro-algae.

Whale shark and underwater photographer
Does a whale shark speak whale or shark?

These massive creatures are, like a vegetarian zombie, slow moving and completely disinterested in eating humans or any other large, fleshy animal for that matter. Braaaaains. That is, unless you were stupid enough to hang out near the mouth of a whale shark, in which case sheer bad luck would see you gagging the poor creature. In any case, you’d drown long before you were digested and I’m guessing that’s probably the more favourable option.

Dwarf_Lanternshark
“Dwarf Lanternshark” photograph by Javontaevious. Previously published: Javontae Murphy@ Facebook. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

On the other end of the size spectrum is the dwarf lanternshark, which is the smallest shark we know of according to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.The dwarf lanternshark is thought to be the smallest species of shark in the world. I say “thought” because not even humans are arrogant enough to assume that every single species has been discovered and given a place into our taxonomy system. This particular shark lives along the upper continental shelf off of the coast of Venezuela and Columbia and at maturity, reaches a length of around 17 cm (± 6 inches). 6 Inches may be a whole lot of fun in the bedroom, but it’s certainly not going to send bloodied limbs flying in every which direction.

Lanternsharks produce light from tiny pores in their skin, which causes them to glow beautiful otherworldly colours. See? Size doesn’t always count. Pushed really, really hard, a lanternshark could probably give your toe a nip or at the very least a nasty suck, but they’re certainly nothing to be afraid of. In fact, they’re probably utterly terrified of you and so they should be. Ruthless overfishing of the Caribbean has put these sharks and many other species like them on the endangered list.

Why Do Sharks Eat Humans Then?

Great white shark

If you were a seal, a fish or a very unlucky seagull, you’d have every reason to get nervous around great white sharks or other similar carnivorous fish. Of course, sharing the water with a large predator would make even the most masculine of men scream like a four-year old girl, but the point is that we are not sharks’ natural prey. Shark attacks aren’t attacks at all… rather they are “accidents”. Like going on a second date with a guy who spends the whole evening talking to your boobs.

Sharks do make mistakes occasionally and appearances can be deceiving. A thrashing wetsuit-clad surfer on a torpedo-shaped board can quite easily pass for a delicious seal, so can you really hold them accountable for the gore that follows? At least we can blame alcohol for our poor decision-making. Sharks, will take a chomp, realise they’ve been duped and then tend to swim off or around in confusion. This is why so many shark bite victims have escaped with their lives.

Trust me. If an apex predator weighing more than 2,000 kg and having more teeth than a love-struck Tom Cruise wanted to eat you, it would. Consider your arm or leg to be a small sacrifice. An hors d’oeuvre.

So What Do We Need to Know About Sharks?

Funny shark picture meme

 Image Credit: WeKnowMemes.com

There are many hundreds of different species of sharks, but only a tiny handful have been known to take the occasional bite at a human being. Since larger sharks don’t hang around heavily populated beaches to indulge in easy feeding, we can only assume that these very rare events are cases of mistaken identity. We are simply not on the menu.

Does this mean that we don’t need to be afraid? Yes… but that’s not a license to be stupid either. Just because bears, wolves and other large predators don’t normally eat humans doesn’t mean you can go cavorting naked around the wilderness with a rasher of bacon strapped to your pink bits. And the ocean IS one big wet wilderness.

Just like Hugh Heffner’s mansion.

Sharks do not hunt human beings. They aren’t ruthless killing machines out to “get” you. They deserve much more understanding, far more respect and certainly far less blind fear and discrimination. Sharks are magnificent, powerful creatures and incredibly diverse and successful as a group.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Small shark in the ocean with amazing light ray

You are more likely to die from opening a bottle of champagne than by being eaten by a shark. Personally, I’d choose the shark… No one wants “died tragically from flying champagne cork” on their headstone and you didn’t even get to drink the champagne first! Choking, tripping, wind (the weather-related kind), bees and ANTS claim more lives per year than sharks. You love dogs and will readily walk up to one in the park for a scratch and a cuddle, but there are 20 canine-related deaths every year in the United States compared with sharks, which only claim one life every TWO years, according to the endless wisdom of National Geographic News. Hell, even cows pose a greater threat to human safety than sharks!

Sure, there are more cases of shark bites annually (16 in the U.S.) than there are actual fatalities (one every two years), but this is testament to the fact that they don’t like eating us. In most cases, a shark will leave you alone once they find out that you aren’t their type and you can’t say the same for tenacious love-struck human beings.