courtesy Elias Levy, flickr creative commons

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By Isabella Avila

Coastal Youth Media reporter Isabella Avila, from Hampstead, NC explores how climate change is bringing humans and sharks into more frequent contact.

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Are sharks voracious, man-eating, evil creatures terrorizing every beach on the planet or are they far more helpful and critical links to the ecosystem? If you trust everything you see in movies you’d probably never want to go back in the water again but if you listen to those who know these magnificent creatures the best, you’ll realize sharks keep order and balance in the ocean, and quite frankly sharks aren’t out to attack humans. 

There are theories that shark encounters with humans are happening more frequently due to climate change. 

Climate change is causing sharks and their prey to migrate to new waters as the oceans warm. 

That sometimes means sharks are coming closer to shore, looking for food. We might be swimming, surfing or riding the waves when the sharks see something they are curious about and move in to find out what we are. 

I recently talked with James Bell, the North Carolina Aquariums Shark Advocacy Consultant and Master SCUBA Diver as well as Shawn Harper, a diving safety instructor for the North Carolina Aquarium at  Roanoke Island. What I have learned from them is that sharks don’t like our heartbeats and that we swim weird to them.

“In fact human biochemistry and biorhythms are like an irritating sandpaper alarm clock to a shark,” James Bell told me. 

“Nurse sharks, Sand Tiger sharks, SandBar sharks, a lot of those sharks are pretty docile or not really interested in divers,” Shawn Harper told me. 

When I interviewed Shawn he told me the first time he saw a shark was in science class when they dissected one. Since then he’s been more interested in seeing them alive and moving. 

“First time scuba diving, I think where I might’ve been was in the South Pacific, we got to see a lot of gray reef sharks and they were very cautious,” Shawn said.

Learning about different shark incidents I’ve done some research and have found some statistics on how many shark attacks have happened in the United States. According to an international shark attack file posted on the Florida Museum website in 2011 there were a total of 31 shark bites and as we got to 2015 there was a spike totaling to 59 shark bites, but as we got to 2020 they dropped back down to 33. In that time frame only four shark bites were fatal.  

“They don’t even actually tear skin. If you look at most shark bites, they’re puncture wounds. So all it is, is the number of teeth puncturing the skin,” James Bell said.

I grew interested in hearing stories about scuba diving after my dad went on a dive and took this really cool picture of a Sand Tiger Shark, which he even won a contest for! James, my neighbor, was a teacher and he continues to enjoy educating young people like me on what he sees in the ocean. 

This assignment has given me a different perspective on sharks and climate change. I’ve also realized that it isn’t the sharks fault for when we are out and they are curious because just like my mom loves to say “we are in their living room”. James Bell also said 

“We like to hang out as people where they often like to eat, around piers, near beaches, near surface zones. These are all areas where surfers and people who like to boogie board and just kind of play in the waves are also hanging out,” Bell added.

One day I was at the beach with some friends and my father texted me telling me he was tracking at least three great white sharks that were in the ocean with me, and when I said I was a bit freaked out, I meant it. 

But as I’ve learned and talked to all of these experts and really have gotten to know more about sharks, they don’t frighten me anymore. I also really enjoy using the tracker “Ocearch” because whenever you go out you get the latest information on sharks near you. Another unique way to track a Sand Tiger Shark is just by the spot pattern on their side.

Shawn Harper is heavily involved in the Spot a Shark USA Project. What happens there is divers submit photographs of Sand Tiger Sharks and the reason they are doing that is because each shark has unique spots just like we have our unique fingerprints. By having these pictures sent to them for this project they can track where these Sand Tiger Sharks are moving and learn more about them. 

“Divers can take a picture of a shark, and we can ID that as an individual because they have a unique spot pattern on their sides, and then we can start to track that shark over years.” Shawn Harper said.

Just finding out a bit of this information has made me see sharks in a new light. Climate change made me even more interested in them and I really want to see how they are moving around more in the warming waters. Now I no longer think of the Jaws scary music when I go in the water. Sharks definitely need a lot more love and attention.  

“The sharks get a bad rap,” James told me. “But here’s something that I think that everyone needs to understand because the climate is changing and it’s changing dramatically with our oceans and our currents in such a way that we are going to have more interaction with sharks.”

What I have learned from talking to so many people and so much research is that sharks are a big part of keeping our oceans safe and clean, and they are also a big part of population control. James told me 

“One of their jobs is if there’s a sicker injured fish it’s their job to clean it up so that we don’t have a gross rotting ocean, much like a buzzard” another thing he said is “If the shark eats the fish, then ther   e’s not too many fish that eat smaller things. And therefore the coral reefs are healthy.” 

Another thing James told me was “sharks have never been found with cancer. They’re the only animal that we know for sure has never been found with cancer. If sharks disappear, the cure for cancer also disappears or does it mean we figure this out and start to do the correct research on sharks and learn to appreciate them as living creatures and learn to make sure that we save them so we can cure cancer.” 

From now on whenever I go to the beach I will be thinking in a different perspective and realize that we are swimming in their living room as my mom always told me.