Breaching Great White Shark


The article below was taken from the Saint John Times Globe, Friday, July 24/98

Magnificent but misunderstood

Telegraph Journal staff writer
photo by David Nickerson

Dr. Turnbull of the UNB
Dr. 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.
   Dr. 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.
   In an 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 research."
   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 their design."
   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.
   "A 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.
   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."
   But he says human hunters take them out of the ocean faster than they reproduce. And unlike smaller sharks they can't survive in captivity.
   Dr. 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."