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Caught by the Spell of a Myth

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“The Great White Shark jangles our nerves

With a reputation he hardly deserves

Neither malice nor spite

Will cause him to bite

It’s not his fault we look like hors d’oeuvres.”

R. Aiden Martin

57 years ago, the publisher of the US magazine “LIFE” warned its readers in the cover story “Look out for sharks” of the danger of shark attacks. The total number would not be terrible (because very low) but of the cruel attack itself, he said:

“During 1959, sharks made 11 authenticated attacks on human beings in U.S. waters. Three of them were fatal. The number is not enormous, but the victims died deaths of horror – dismembered bite by bite as their executioners struck and turned, struck and turned again.” LIFE Magazine 11. July 1960

15 years later, a movie managed to spread real fear and terror. From now on, the sea was no longer seen only as a place for leisure and water sports but as a place where evil resides. This movie was “Jaws”. What many viewers did not know at the time was that the film resembles true events. In 1916, a shark on the New Jersey coast attacked five swimmers within twelve days – a man-eater! Even the words “man-eater” are deeply troubling…

This term makes millennia of human development null and void and takes us back to our beginnings as pitiful hominids roaming the African steppe, the region where the cradle of humanity stood. They crouched in fire-less caves, always on guard, always in fear that death lurked in the tall grass – or in the water. The idea of being eaten alive violates the dignity of man, undermining the sacred belief that we are ‘something better’ or ‘the crown of creation,’ as we like to call ourselves.

The shark tells us with his actions: “I do not care if you’re President of the United States, the Queen of England or just the average Joe, for me you’re not a ‘coronation’, you are the same as a seal or a dolphin – a protein supplier. Honestly, I prefer to chase you, because you are weak and slow.”

Sharks and crocodiles attack people. Amongst the big cats, leopards are even more feared human hunters than lions and as the peasants of India and Indonesia know, human flesh is also on the tiger’s menu. Although sharks rarely ‘eat’ people, they are considered to be monsters par excellence – perhaps because the shark is so deeply rooted in collective popular beliefs as no other predator. It is the center of a tradition that goes back to a time long before man began writing down the myths and legends that circulated around the campfire of fishermen.

In this sense, the book “Jaws” by Peter Benchley may be considered a saga in which myth and reality merge. The book recollects actual occurrences (albeit greatly exaggerated) but reads like an adventure novel. Action and topic make up his success. It does not only give you shivers down your spine, like a good horror story about occultism, it goes far deeper.

The film by Steven Spielberg is even worse. Relentlessly, he lets him strike again on the American East Coast. He does not just pick up on the historical events of 1916. He depicts the animal with a lot of aggressiveness, strength and human intelligence. A monster. He penetrates into the subconscious and gets stuck there – because you know that the story is somehow based on facts and not the abstruse fantasies of a fanciful Hollywood director.

This shark really lived (although it is doubtful if only one shark was responsible for all of the attacks). His victims were real, normal people. One suffers a kind of metaphysical shock.

Are we actually the crown of creation when a fish – a fish! – turns us so fast and easy into simple prey? The idea of being dead doesn’t scare us modern people. But the process and way of dying terrifies us. But one should not ask such a question – and certainly not answer it. Sharks do not submit to humans – and they do not recognize our alleged superiority. And so, it is hard for us to imagine that we, too, can be part of the food chain (and not at the very top) because we no longer feel as a part of nature.

In our over-mapped, overpopulated, over-explored world, it’s not often that an animal gives up such mystery. But we do not need to know everything. Some things are in good hands in the fog of secrets and mystery. I am glad that there are still unresolved questions, because after all they are the ones who stimulate the imagination. Sharks are beautiful in a scary way and the epitome of all the unknowns that still exist apart from our civilization.

In a time when human mastery of our terrestrial realm grants us the illusion that we can control everything from atoms and genes, to the destiny of our planet, it is humbling that something as simple as a big fish can put us back in our place.

In a 1987 interview with Time magazine, “Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson put our situation into irreverent and incisive perspective: “I think it’s wonderful that we live in a world in which there are things that can eat us. It keeps us from getting too cocky.”

Food for thought?

Christian Kemper is a TV journalist from Germany. He has been diving with and studying sharks for more than 20 years. He has written two books about shark attacks and one book about crocodiles. He is a freelance writer for three of the biggest scuba diving magazines in Germany.

Marine Life & Conservation

Review: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

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Regular contributors, CJ & Mike from Bimble in the Blue, review the Netlix documentary: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

David Attenborough’s latest and arguably most important documentary to date is now showing on Netflix.  It is, in his own words, his “witness statement” of a unique life exploring and documenting the wonders of the natural world.

Attenborough looks back and realizes that the previously gradual changes he witnessed (animal species becoming harder to find and fewer wild spaces) have now become vastly more widespread and noticeable. As the human population increased, so has the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, while the amount of wilderness has decreased.  His conclusion: human activity and man-made climate change have accelerated the pace of biodiversity loss.  This not only imperils the majority of natural habitats and creatures on Earth, but also the very future of humankind.

From images of lush green landscapes we journey with him over time to revisit these places, now wastelands. One of the most haunting is the contrast between early footage of orangutans swinging through the rainforest, to recent images of an orangutan clinging onto a lone tree devoid of all but one branch in the wreckage of a deforested site. Attenborough then makes a statement that has stuck with me since watching “A Life On This Planet”: that though we undoubtably have an obligation to care for the natural world, it’s not just about saving other species.  It is about saving ourselves.  His drive and determination to advocate and spread this message as much as possible at the age of 94 is both impressive and humbling, yet Attenborough manages to make this serious subject an unexpectedly positive learning experience.

In the final chapter of the movie Attenborough turns from the bleak reality of the destruction of Earth’s biodiversity, and offers a lifeline of hope and positivity. We can, he tells us, reverse the damage we have caused, we can save our species and the wonders of the natural world, and it can be done with just a few conceptually simple actions.  It’s enough to enthuse even the most jaded and pessimistic of conservationists!  Attenborough has an amazing ability to awaken our love of the natural world and now he shows us our future is in our hands. It’s time to act.  But we must start now and it must be a united effort.

You don’t have to be a scuba diver to be impressed with the eloquence of David Attenborough’s words, or his powerful yet simple message. We are self-confessed Attenborough super fans, but I don’t think anyone could contest that this is a stunning 1 hour and 20 minutes of hard hitting brilliance. The film closes with the comment, “Who else needs to see it?” The answer is all of us.  We highly recommend this documentary to everyone. Put simply if you watch no other documentary this year, watch this one.

For more from CJ and Mike please visit their website here.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Review: My Octopus Teacher

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Regular contributors, CJ & Mike from Bimble in the Blue, review the Netflix documentary: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher is the story of how filmmaker Craig Foster befriends a common octopus in the kelp forests off of the Cape Town coast.  Mike and I love to watch all things underwater and nature-based and so eagerly sat down to this documentary film, a new September arrival on Netflix.

Watch the trailer here:

After burning out at work Foster finds fascination and a deep connection with nature when spending time freediving at his favourite local spot.  In a sequence familiar to those who watched the “Green Seas” episode of Blue Planet 2, he comes across an octopus camouflaging itself with shells.  With his curiosity piqued, he begins to seek out the octopus on all of his dives, finding delight in its seemingly strange behaviours, learning what he can from the scientific literature and slowing working to gain the mollusc’s trust on his daily visits to her world.

My Octopus Teacher portrays a very anthropomorphised view of our subject and Foster’s relationship with her.  His conclusions tend to be more emotional than scientific and his eagerness to find similarities between himself and the octopus shows a great sentimentality.  However, you cannot help but be captivated by the incredible mutual curiosity and bond developing before you.  This relationship, and the stunning scenes of the kelp forest with its diverse inhabitants make for a deeply absorbing viewing experience.  There is some fantastic cephalopod behaviour, from the octopus adapting her hunting tactics for different prey, to strategies for outwitting predators and incredible colour and shape morphology.  Foster is also keen to point out how little we know about octopuses and that there is a great opportunity to learn something with every dive.

One of my favourite observations made by Foster at the end of the film is that by going into the water for liberation from daily life’s concerns and dramas, he realised how precious these wild places are.  As he starts to care about all the animals there, even the most minuscule, he comes to find that each one is both important and vulnerable.  Foster finds that his relationship with the octopus changes him and he feels a part of the kelp forest rather than just a visitor, an experience he then shares with his son.  To me Foster’s insight that we must connect with an environment in order to be truly motivated to protect it resonated very strongly.  For those fortunate enough to fall in love with our wilder environments and connect with them, seeing it mirrored in this documentary is quite moving.

Overall we very much enjoyed the film, especially the weird and wonderful behaviours caught on screen and the story as it unfolds.  Though our first reaction was one of pure jealousy (that Foster has such a stunning local dive spot and coastal property!) we soon moved past the envy and found My Octopus Teacher to be a very relaxing and enjoyable evening’s entertainment, which we highly recommend.

For more from CJ and Mike please visit their website here.

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