So who’s the real monster?
It’s estimated that people kill 100 million sharks EACH year. Sharks are responsible for the deaths of no more than five people.
Sleek, fast, beautiful – sharks are much maligned but magnificent fish that should be admired, not feared. Meet the spectacular sharks of the Caribbean…
Mystical, powerful, elegant, efficient, elusive, ancient… Sharks have been patrolling the oceans for more than 400 million years. They have, though, developed something of a reputation. When we think shark, we collectively shudder and think Jaws. We think scary; we think danger. Indeed, Hollywood has done a great job typecasting these ancient ocean beauties as villains. But is that fair? Huge numbers of scuba divers, snorkellers and freedivers disagree. These marine explorers are increasingly seeking out the Caribbean’s resident sharks. Don a mask and share the ocean – even for a brief moment – with a shark: that’s the best way to change attitudes and lives in amazing positive ways.
For millennia, sharks and their flat cousins, rays, have thrived in the waters surrounding our beautiful islands. The Caribs and the Arawaks believed sharks were connected to the spiritual realm. With highly developed senses and superb efficiency, these perfectly evolved animals were in a biological ‘safe zone’ – until humans started to actively target sharks, to destroy their habitats and to remove their natural prey.
Sharks are elasmobranchs, a family of fish with cartilage-based skeletons instead of bones. They have a formidable family tree, with more than 500 known species and counting. They range in size from a few inches to over 12m in length. Most are small and dwell in deep water; the average shark size is less than 1m, with only around ten species that regularly grow longer than 4m.
Sharks reach reproductive maturity relatively late (like humans, sharks are aged in double digits before they can produce young), and exhibit no parenting skills or duties. Some species give birth to live young in a mangrove, river estuary, coral reef or open ocean (as do most of our rays and sharks of the Caribbean), while others lay eggs, mostly more temperate sharks. But however they produce their young, from the time their offspring are born the parents just keep swimming. Gestation periods range from a few months up to two years, and depending on the species, demale sharks can have just a couple of babies or more than 50 at a time.
In the good old days, sharks and rays were far more numerous in our seas. You don’t have to search far to find an old fisherman who can spin tall tales about the size of the sharks they used to spot, or the numbers they use to see. However, as is the case in many of our key fisheries and nearshore habitats, shark populations are declining – and declining fast.
We are beyond blessed in the Caribbean to have at our fingertips a biodiversity that surpasses that of many nations, but that also makes us more aware of the finite reach of our natural resources and the need to protect them. Sharks have survived for over 400 million years, yet in the past 75 years their populations have begun to decline steeply.
More than a third of all shark species are threatened. Many are killed specifically for their fins, to service the demand for shark fin soup. Though shark fins have zero nutritional value, in some Asian countries they are traditionally thought to increase libido (we’d suggest you try some local sea moss or lionfish instead!). Sharks are also caught for their meat, though it is an acquired taste and one with serious associated health concerns – sharks bioaccumulate chemicals, heavy metals and toxins in their bodies and store them in their meat.
Sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing. They grow slowly, reproduce late and produce few young, so their populations are very sensitive to ghost fishing and targeted take. Also, many species, like hammerheads, blue and thresher sharks (all found in the Caribbean), need to keep swimming to survive. This means when they are caught on a longline for extended periods of time and can’t manoeuvre enough water over their gills, they become victims of bycatch – and die.
As the garbage cans of the sea, sharks eat lots of marine debris. This helps maintain healthy ecosystems, but also means that chemicals in marine waste leach into their bodies.
How sharks can help us
Far from being man’s mortal enemy, sharks can be a huge benefit to us and our oceans. They keep our fish populations healthy by removing weak and sick fish. They also help keep our reefs healthy. Reefs are invaluable for coastline protection, sand production, food protein and tourism – without healthy shark populations our reefs will continue to suffer.
And they bring the bling! Shark ecotourism is a money-spinner – where sharks are protected and used as feature creatures during snorkelling, boating and diving experiences, they attract tourists. Countries in the Pacific and northern Caribbean continue to make millions of dollars annually from sustainable and safe shark tourism. Visitors love the rush of the exotic, the tangibility of an untouched island full of natural beauty, the thrill of sharing the same ocean space with such an ancient sea creature. We have an incredible opportunity to support our local environments, protect endangered species, and keep our visitors flying high on amazing holidays by shifting from shark killing to shark watching.
Where can I swim with sharks?
All healthy reefs of the Caribbean host shark populations. Pick your favourite island and get in the water! Support tourism operators who promote eco-friendly tours. Talk to your operators, ask questions, get dive certified and enjoy exploring your backyard.
Grenada and Carriacou have a magnificent range of reefs and wrecks frequented by juvenile nurse sharks near shore and adult nurse, reef, blacktip and other species on offshore wrecks. Try the reef drop-off adjacent to the Kick ’em Jenny underwater volcano. Also, Grenada is preparing protective legislation for sharks, which would be a huge leadership stride forward for the Windward Islands, providing a valuable safe zone for transient shark populations.
We all need a safe place to lime – sharks included!
Barbados is another good spot. Boasting exhilarating north- and east-coast topography with reef caves, swim-throughs and overhangs, you are sure to spot some sharks. Try ‘Shark Hole’ up north or Tent Bay out east. Be sure to join Bajan Dive Fest (2-7 July 2019) to take it all in.
The picturesque archipelago of St Vincent & the Grenadines is home to the Tobago Cays, a great place to spot a baby shark or a free-swimming adult reef shark, while Antigua & Barbuda has numerous coral reefs, great for relaxed reef-based diving where reef and nurse sharks are commonly seen.
Caribbean sharks: 7 species to spot
Named for its unusual, flattened, hammer-shaped head, with electric sensors across its broad nose to locate buried stingrays – its favourite food.
Named for its yellow colour, a perfect camouflage when swimming over the sandy seafloor. Lemon sharks are seen close to shore in areas with healthy mangroves, where they pup during the birthing season.
3 Mako – aka ‘tuna shark’
The fastest shark in the sea can reach speeds of over 100km/h.
This large, solitary species will eat anything: it can catch seabirds, split large turtles in half and consume trash – it is known as the ‘garbage can of the sea’, and is very sensitive to marine debris.
This big, deep-water shark isn’t found near shore. It hunts with its tail, using it to stun fish before eating them.
6 Caribbean reef
This is the most common shark seen on Caribbean reefs, aside from nurse sharks. It has a peaceful demeanour but a powerful presence
7 Nurse – aka ‘ground sharks’
This gentle shark often stops and sleeps during the day. It gets its name for its ability to suck a lambi (conch) out of its shell.