“Jaws” prompted Greg Skomal to consider a career in marine biology. It also reminded him a lot of what Hollywood was preaching was fiction.
Sharks, he says, have long been misunderstood – but they’re not the big, bad human killers filmmakers want you to believe.
“They fill a role in the marine ecosystem,” the head of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program says. “Most sharks are top predators. Their role is to keep the ocean in balance. They’re important. We need to protect them.”
Overharvesting, Skomal adds, is a particular problem. “When you take a broad look at it, general shark populations are threatened more than not.”
While films like to lump the more than 500 species in one, there are distinct differences. “Some are more refined and have preferred diets – certain kinds of fish. The tiger shark is that interesting animal that will eat just about anything.”
That “broad diet” has prompted scientists to find all sorts of garbage (yes, license plates) in their stomachs. Sometimes, other sharks are prey. “It’s a competitive, harsh environment in which they live.”
Because Skomal has had a chance to encounter sharks up close, he knows they’re very powerful with sharp sets of teeth. “They’re going to protect themselves...but they usually keep their distance. Most species are skittish. If people look like predators when they jump in the water, (sharks) could attack. Most of the time, they get away from me as quickly as they can.”
Often, he says, people ask him what they should do when they go to the beach. “Drive more carefully,” Skomal advises. “I’m in Boston and you’re more likely to get hurt in your car. Sharks are not in great numbers where I live. I’m more afraid of ticks. Last year I got Lyme disease. Ticks freak me out.”
Sharks – should you encounter them – are best left alone. “If you see a shark, carefully keep your eyes on it and move away. Most will swim away from you and avoid you all together.”
A senior fisheries biologist at the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, Skomal is featured in Nat Geo Wild’s special, “Shark vs. Predator,” which airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on the network as part of “SharkFest.” He talks about water creatures that could be more dangerous than man and points out some of the odd ones going head-to-head with sharks. Crocodiles? Octopi? Birds? They’ve all been known to tangle.
At 13, Skomal says, he was inspired by “Jaws” and Matt Hooper, the character Richard Dreyfuss played. “He had the coolest job in the world. Now, I realize it’s the funnest job on earth. Every day is different and I can’t wait to get to work.”
Shows that shed light on sharks are good, he says. “Any programming that inspires people and engages people is good. Some might not be the best friends of sharks but I do think we live in a pretty cool time when young people are engaging with science. A lot of the fear that was around when I was a kid has been replaced with fascination. Because we communicate so effectively – through the internet and social media – we understand the importance of sharks.”