By Glenn Ashton.
Occasionally a special book appears that makes you sit up and reconsider your understanding of the world, or at least a part of it. The True Nature of Sharks is such a book. This book echoes how Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall forced us to completely reassess how we perceived the great apes, our closest relatives. While sharks may only be a very distant relative, Porcher’s book is no less revolutionary, in that it forces us to reassess how we perceive and understand sharks. Her work is instrumental in firmly shifting our understanding of sharks away from the obsolete trope of sharks as killing machines. Instead she portrays them as intelligent, predictable individual animals capable of so much more than generally assumed.
Through the ages sharks gained a largely unquestioned reputation as frightening predators just waiting to eat anything and anybody entering the watery realms. Modern history reinforced these tropes with stories of pilots and sailors being attacked during the war years and of all oceans users being at constant risk. This was exemplified in Peter Benchley’s “Jaws”, a book he later expressed regret about writing for the way it maligned sharks. Through these influences, sharks, like all creatures that take humans as incidental prey, have become perceived as creatures that reflect our deepest primeval inbred fears of consumption by wild beasts, as mindless, aggressive predators, without exception.
Porcher turns the entire trope on its head. Several years of living on the beautiful Polynesian island of Moorea enabled her to closely observe several species of reef sharks in their habitat over an extended period. She has managed to combine her observations into a fascinating, ground-breaking book that forces us to completely reassess how we see sharks. Through careful record keeping and categorisation of the ethology – the study of formal behaviour patterns of animals observed in wild conditions – she shares the reality of how these remarkable animals exhibit behaviours that go far beyond our common assumptions of sharks.
From her first unexpected encounters with sharks in these beautiful fringing lagoons, Porcher learns that sharks are individuals with personalities, memories and yes, even a consciousness that combine to turn conventional wisdom on its head. We are clearly shown that sharks are everything but the natural born killers that popular media make them out to be. Even after years of intimate interaction with these sharks, feeding them, observing them and spending what must amount to many hundreds of hours in the water with them she never felt inordinately threatened by the behaviour of these fascinating creatures.
She tells of the tragic consequences of a visit from a shark finning fleet through the area. This event clearly illustrates how conventional wisdom of sharks being a danger to humans is not just wrong but antithetical. The reality is that it is people who kill an estimated 70 million sharks every year, mainly to feed shark fin soup to high-rolling Chinese diners, or to supply fish and chip shops “flake”, the commercial name for shark. Sharks also fall victim in massive numbers as bycatch in commercial nets and longlines, only to be discarded as bycatch.
Consequently sharks have seen catastrophic declines with several species on IUCN lists of endangered species. For Porcher this reality was brutally driven home when many of the sharks she was familiar with disappeared, never to return after Singapore shark fin fishing companies moved through the area. Through her work shark finning was banned throughout French Polynesia.
But where Porcher’s brilliance really shines through is in her patient recording of how sharks behave in the wild. She takes these observations and manages to clearly communicate these interactions to illustrate the consciousness and individuality of sharks. As she gradually became familiar with the resident sharks, she named each one through its patterning, nicks and marks or behaviour. Her assiduous collection data and observations of each shark, when it was seen, how it behaved, how they interacted with other sharks and fish are never allowed to become a fusty scientific record but rather evolve into a living diary of how these sharks are an intrinsic link in the life of the reef and of the region.
This book is an invaluable record that shows how sharks return to familiar territories after mating in the open ocean, time and again. More revealingly it shows how these sharks recognise and interact with her upon return and how the personalities of individual sharks shine through by their unique behaviour patterns.
While she clearly grows fond of the sharks her observations never fall into the trap of anthropomorphism – providing them human characteristics to other species where none exist. Instead she builds a solid repertoire of observed animal behaviour and how they form an intrinsic part of a much larger web of life. She points out how disruptions, such as the visit of the shark finners or of sport fishermen, have massive impacts on the behaviour of sharks in an area and consequently on the entire web of life that interacts with the sharks.
This book is further enhanced by beautiful illustrations. Porcher uses her considerable artistic talent and shares some of her remarkable paintings and drawings of sharks. She has also employed clever techniques to foreground the sharks she has photographed that enables them to stand out against a background that they naturally suited to blend into as camouflage. These pictures show behaviour that we are fortunate to be able to share through this medium.
The True Nature of Sharks is a must buy for anybody who finds beauty and wonder in the web of life. It is logically laid out. The narrative flows well and provides an easy read, an important task in communicating non-fiction to the layman. Sharks have fairly recently begun to be appreciated by many as the fascinating creatures they are. A growing industry now attracts tourists to observe, dive and interact with them in sites around the world.
Porcher stands out as a pioneer in being able to give voice and logic to our growing appreciation of these fascinating and ancient creatures. She shares how these keystone species keep our oceans in balance and how even traditionally feared species like Tiger and Bullshark are able to form unique bonds with humans, showing adaptation was not considered possible. Porcher is the first person to enable us to get under their skin in order to appreciate the beauty of how this species has evolved over hundreds of millennia.
We still have much to learn about the complexity and interconnectedness of life. We are truly fortunate to have people like Ila France Porcher share their important stories with the world about how these maligned creatures display behaviours that are completely at odds with what was previously considered possible.
Ashton has spent most of his life around the world’s oceans, working on fishing vessels and sailing around the world, surfing and diving. He is fortunate to have visited and dived in the waters of Moorea where this book is largely based and become familiar with the sharks of this archipelago, amongst others. He holds a Masters degree in environmental management and is working toward completing his PhD.