The article below was taken
from the Saint John Times Globe, Friday, July 24/98
Magnificent but misunderstood
By GLEN ALLEN
Journal staff writer
photo by David Nickerson
Stephen Turnbull, who spends his days surrounded by sharks, shed a little light
on an animal many people fear.
If you're swimming underwater in the Bay of
Fundy or somewhere in sunnier climes and a shark comes right at you, head
straight for the bottom.
That's the professional advice of
one of Canada's foremost experts on sharks, Dr. Stephen Turnbull of the
University of New Brunswick's Saint John campus.
Turnbull, who has swum with the shark here, in the Caribbean and off Hawaii,
says "they don't attack from above. If they're in a feeding mode they'll come
from behind or above."
Sharks have been in the news in
this province recently with the sighting of one off Mispec Beach in Saint John
and another rare Porbeagle shark trapped in a weir off Grand Manan Island and
Dr. Turnbull has been pursued by the media to explain the habits of what is
probably the world's least-understood creature.
office cluttered with shark jaws and many posters of about 400 varieties of the
world's sharks, Dr. Turnbull says, "In fact we don't really know exactly how
many species there are. We don't know how long they live and we don't know what
their territory is. That's how little is known about them. It's only in the
past 20 years that people have been doing hard-core
What is known is that more sharks than people
might believe make the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy their home. There is not
only the relatively common dogfish (a small shark) but the king of all sharks,
the Great White, the Thresher shark, Blue shark, Mako shark and the Tiger shark
(the second most dangerous to mammals). They are hard to study here however,
"because of the strong currents and tides."
That is why
Dr. Turnbull has another base of operations in the Bahamas where he works with
the "guru" of shark studies, Sonny Gruber. ("He is to shark studies what
Michael Jordan is to basketball.")
Dr. Turnbull, a former
accountant with the Hudson's Bay Company in Winnipeg who developed a yen for
marine biology and later took his doctorate at UNBSJ, says, "Sharks are the
most incredible and magnificent animals. It's partly in the way they move. They
have the most efficient design of any animal on the planet. NASA, the U.S. Navy
and the airplane industry have all studied them to see if they can replicate
Dr. Turnbull says a Great White - which may
range up to 7.5 metres (25 feet) in length and weigh over two tons - "can
finish off a 400-pound [180-kilogram] elephant seal in two bites. And they hit
with such force that they first knock out their prey.
lot of the fear of the bigger sharks is Hollywood-induced," says Dr. Turnbull.
"You have to have a respectful fear but you have to have your wits about you
too. They can cover a long distance in a very short time."
Your chance of encountering a shark while in or under the
water is minimal. Your chance of being killed by one "is about as great of
dying from bee stings," says Dr. Turnbull.
says that if you do encounter a shark "it may be just passing by having a look
at you. After all you're an intruder in their environment, a rather large
mammal that will be quite strange to them."
But there are
a number of ways you can tell if a shark is planning to press the attack. "If
they swim in circles around you and those circles are getting tighter and
tighter, you may be in danger."' Another measure of the shark's intent is in
its posture. "If you're trespassing on their reef, they will go into
exaggerated contortions - the fins drop straight down or the back is humped.
Then it's time to get out."
But the swimmer must get out
slowly - and calmly. "Above all don't start swimming like crazy. And if you're
in grave danger head for the bottom."
Dr. Turnbull has
much to say about the fabled Great White shark. He has never seen one in the
flesh "but I would just love to," he says. While he swims freely with other
sharks he would prefer to be in an anti-shark cage with Great White around.
"He's the biggest and toughest of all of them."
says human hunters take them out of the ocean faster than they reproduce. And
unlike smaller sharks they can't survive in captivity.
Turnbull says the Great White is protected in many jurisdictions in the world -
but not in Canadian waters. "I wish they were here," he said gazing almost
wistfully up at a portrait of one of these mammoth sharks on his office wall.
"Their numbers are declining rapidly."