Shark – a magical underwater adventure with Steve Backshall

I do want to lavish praise upon the magnificent Shark with Steve Backshall, but you’ll first have to be patient, I’m afraid.

It’s a challenging time to be a fan of the natural world. There’s so much majesty in the world unseen by my eyes, which would be exhilarating, did I not fear much of it might be destroyed or irreparably damaged before I can witness it. Perhaps it’s foolish to discuss the legacy of Cop26, given it concluded barely two months ago, but the very real issue of severe climate breakdown seems already thrust aside. Instead, our most immediate concerns have fallen to Covid, massive inflation and rising energy prices, and whether Johnson’s final days are nigh. Which means the greatest problem is attitude.

Some fresh distraction will always arise to divert national attention. Will Kim Jong Un’s missile testing ever escalate to live targets? Will Russia invade Ukraine? Will Brexit unleash further economic horrors? Will we ever hear the Taliban mentioned again? Will any other high-profile athletes fail to follow basic health and safety protocols, or will any attempt to protest the Winter Olympics?

Instead, the climate crisis needs to be a constant, urgent reminder. It’s utterly inexplicable to me that any person could callously disregard the beauty of our planet, much less to find it within any individual’s capacity to wantonly eviscerate it.

I’ve always adored documentaries engaging with the natural world, primarily when they centre around wildlife. Yes, Attenborough’s Green Planet is worth the watch, but plants just aren’t quite as thrilling to me. And what I’ve seen from these documentaries has been a notable tone shift during this past decade, from one of innocent wonder and hope, to something not quite resembling despair, but is certainly more sombre.

Against that backdrop, I watched Shark with Steve Backshall. His narration is that rare and perfect balance of informative without being overwhelming, nor detracting from the ultimate stars. His love and respect pervades every scene and is an absolute delight.

Personally, I’m in awe of Steve’s free-diving. His buoyancy control in featureless, open water when diving was impressive enough, but his free-diving, proudly showcased in the introductory shots, is extreme. He can hold his breath for a remarkable five minutes and employs this ability to interact with sharks face-to-face, sometimes literally nose-to-nose.

Each episode is beautifully shot, spanning spectacular locations across the globe, and a remarkable array of species.

The regrettably-brief series manages to expose more of sharks than I previously realised. It conveys their intelligence, curiosity, even compassion, and undeniable complexity. Human perceptions surrounding sharks do seem to be shifting, though that might be limited to my own understanding. Villainised by popular media and, most notoriously, Jaws, their image as ruthless man-eaters has been mitigated. Steve swims with Tiger sharks in the Maldives, where once they were feared. It’s been observed more recently that sharks have limited interest in people, and instead perform a vital role in indiscriminately consuming ocean debris.

Additionally, a project involved drone footage released in the latter half of last year showed numerous potential shark encounters in which humans, blissfully unaware of the apex predators sometimes swimming underneath them, were ignored. Another experiment performed by Mark Roper also found evidence that mammal (cow) blood was far less interesting than fish blood – an intriguing basis for future research, since seals famously represent a significant proportion of the Great White diet.

Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya, right into your eyes. Y’know, the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes after ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’ until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white, and then – aww, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red – Quint’s Jaw’s speech

The wider sub-class sharks fall into has existed for 450 million years and continues to present innumerous mysteries to researchers. The Megamouth shark, one of the largest in the world, was only discovered in 1976, and is fitted with remarkable features like biofluorescent inner mouths. On that, the deep sea is undoubtably the coolest place on earth, yet we scarcely know anything about it. Another fascinating video on ‘deep sea gigantism’ is worth a watch, not least for how hilarious some of the comments are.

Yet mixed into the happy stories are unavoidable frustrations. Steve’s adventures in the Maldives also take him to so-called ‘Garbage Island’, diving over a haunting graveyard of obliterated coral reef. He finds traces of severe shark over-fishing in the British Isles. One encounter with Oceanic White-Tips sees several sharks bearing fishing wounds, though Steve manages to pry an impaled fishing hook out from one of their mouths.

That’s really the underlying and unavoidable theme. These magnificent and crucial animals are here, having dominated the oceans for longer than humans can even possibly conceive. But they might not be forever.

The value of marine sanctuaries has already been proven by their success. Where marine national parks have been established, the ecosystems have been given space to recover and, when managed sustainably, present more tourist opportunities for those wishing to see the natural world at its incredible best. It was in such a park I was able to dive with White-tip Reef sharks off the shores of Costa Rica last year, and will never forget it.

But instead of seeking to preserve these remarkable organisms, plans are proceeding to allow exploratory deep-sea mining. The process is best explained by an online IUCN brief, and would be an entirely separate post, but simply put threatens deep-sea habitats and potentially the entire ocean ecosystem. Sadly, it’s driven by the necessity of terrestrial mineral shortages and the demand for alternative mining grounds.

We have all the evidence before us, but somehow still ignore the obvious. We need to change our habits. Fairly significantly. Sharks have painfully slow reproductive cycles and will struggle to adapt to the rapid rate of environmental change. Without them, we lose a precious and spectacular piece of our ecosystem.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you managed to watch this series – if not, I’d definitely recommend it! Feature image shows a whale shark.

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