Why Sharks?

I have this really vague memory of going to an aquarium with my parents when I was about seven or eight years old. I don’t remember where the aquarium was or how wide a variety of creatures it contained or how long our visit was, but I do have a distinct memory of going through the shark tunnel. I remember the blue-tinged dimness and watching predators bigger than I was glide above the ceiling while people pointed and whispered, hushed by either awe or perhaps some vague impression that the sharks might hear them and get mad.

Seaworld might be big on putting whales and dolphins in the spotlight, but everyone else, from aquariums with shark tunnels to the folks behind Discovery channel’s Shark Week, knows that when you want to get people interested in marine life, sharks are the real stars of the show. But why? What’s so special about sharks that makes them more fascinating than ridiculously intelligent dolphins or breathtakingly enormous whales? What made them so much more memorable to my young mind than any other creature that aquarium had to offer?

In fact, there’s only one other thing apart from the shark tunnel that I remember about that aquarium. Upon exiting the shark tunnel we found ourselves in a large sort of lobby area from which the rest of the aquarium could be explored. Directly across from the tunnel was an archway into what looked to be another tunnel. The words “The World’s Deadliest Predator” were emblazoned across the archway in a dramatic red font. It was certainly an attention-grabber. What could be in there? Bigger sharks? Some other even more terrifying underwater monster my seven-year-old self had yet to hear of?

It was set back into the wall a bit and very cleverly angled; you had to get pretty close to see that the archway didn’t contain another tunnel at all but a mirror instead. Get it? A nearby, less eye-catching display offered statistics about species we’d driven to endangerment over the course of history and what was being done to preserve them now.

I wonder if the shark’s reputation as one of the world or sea’s greatest predators might be a factor in what draws us to them. As rare as it is, sharks do occasionally kill humans, and while that frightens us it almost seems to reassure us as well, by sending the message that humanity does not have full control over nature. Wilderness is a concept that we seem to value, and wilderness cannot exist without an element of the wild, the unpredictable. Apart from a desire to protect the untamed, however, it’s also almost as if hearing tales of animal predators overtaking a variety of prey that includes the odd human lets us feel like maybe we’re not “The World’s Deadliest Predator” after all. This feels nice. After all, as cool a title it is for an aquarium tunnel, it’s a distinction that comes with a great deal of guilt.

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