Living in Ventura County, there’s a natural suspicion that sharks lurk constantly in the oceans nearby.
It’s a suspicion that, depending on what stories you overhear from fishermen and surfers, rests somewhere between curiosity and anxiety. Despite a pronounced lack of fatal shark attacks off the Ventura County coast — with only one recorded, in 2015 — fishing data shows that the waters off Ventura and Oxnard are heavy with juvenile white sharks.
So which shark tales do you believe?
Thomas Peschak, the German marine biologist whose admiration and vision led him to concentrate on photographing some of the most elusive shark species in the world, ultimately brought his affinities for these mysterious and enigmatic creatures of the sea to National Geographic. His Wild Seas, Secret Shores program has taken him all over the world to advocate for a greater understanding of sharks, and here he holds forth on sharks as apex predators, as cautionary tales and as crucial aspects of the larger global food chain.
Cotner: What’s the biggest disconnect audiences have between sharks and the public image of sharks?
Peschak: I think that most people have experienced National Geographic’s content either in the magazine or on the TV channel or the Instagram feed, and they tend to only always see the end result. They see those few images, or those few stories and video clips, often without context — and I think that, during my live show, my aim to take the audience on one of these National Geographic assignments with me and take them behind the scenes on my Nat Geo show Wild Seas, Secret Shores and actually show them what really goes into producing those images. It’s really a show about the good, the bad, the funny and the ugly. Most of the time, when I’m shooting for National Geographic, it is never easy, it is always an uphill struggle, and I think that the stories behind the images really give a great context about what it actually takes to bring back those stories from often incredibly remote and wild — and sometimes even hostile — places. I’ve been shooting for National Geographic for 10 years, so this is really a chance for the audience to come with me on 10 years’ worth of National Geographic assignments in some of the most interesting and awe-inspiring locations in our oceans and along our coastlines.
Are sharks the focus in your larger body of work?
Absolutely. I come from a marine biology background; I was a scientist first, and then, about 15 years or so ago, I realized that I could probably make a bigger impact in conservation through photographs and through statistics. Actually, one of the first real projects that I worked on was sharks and shark conservation. Sharks have been a thread that’s gone through my entire photographic career. I think that sharks are a really great “gateway drug” into ocean conservation. Whether people fear them, or whether they’re fascinated by them — no one is indifferent about a shark. If somebody feels something, they’re bound to listen and they’re bound to be much more engaged than if you’re talking about a piece of seaweed, or talking about a marine snail. These are also incredibly important creatures and part of the biodiversity of our oceans — but I think you can tell a lot of very important ocean conservation stories through the character of a shark. A good third of Wild Seas, Secret Shores has quite interesting and powerful shark content.
Was there a specific moment at which you realized that sharks were the animal for you?
I’m 43 now. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 10 years old. No questions. No alternatives. No negotiation. (laughs) I always knew what I was going to do. So, forever. I started snorkeling when I was about 10, scuba around 12; I put a lot of time in the ocean before I was an adult. Sharks were always part of that ecosystem. They were always a distinct part of that larger realm — but I’ve always been fascinated by them. As a young kid, watching documentaries about them, or reading old National Geographic articles, or books by Jacques Cousteau and people like that, and sharks were always a real draw card for me. When I began to encounter them for the first time in the ocean as a teenager, it kind of really reiterated how incredibly fascinating they were. And of course as a photographer, they became a real photographic challenge for me because … I think most people have this idea that you can go out into the ocean, hop in anywhere and within a few seconds, you’re going to be surrounded by sharks. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
Years of industrial fishing have decimated shark populations all across our oceans, and finding and photographing sharks is actually incredibly difficult. When you’re shooting sharks, you spend most of your time looking. Because sharks haven’t received the best press in the last 50 or 60 years, I think that in the early days of shark photography, the public opinion was really against them. It’s hard to get people really excited about a shark conservation campaign — stop shark finning and like that — because people saw them as these reviled, man-eating monsters. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen that really shift. The amount of conservation organizations that are out there dedicated to sharks … sharks have really become the new dolphins. Or the new whales. We’ve really seen a paradigm shift from when I began photographing sharks to what I see now — and that’s obviously incredibly encouraging.
When you hear a news report about a shark attack, what’s the first thing that springs to mind?
Look, I don’t make light of shark bites. At all. Even though the occurrences are incredibly minute. If it happens to you, or your family — or it happens to your coastal community — the impact, psychologically and economically, can be enormous. Even though they are — statistically — incredibly low, I take them incredibly seriously. I think what comes to mind is that, as a biologist and as a person who’s put in a lot of time studying these animals, I ask myself, “OK — why did it happen?” A lot of people want to know why sharks bite us. The number of bites is so minute that, statistically speaking, we don’t really have the answers because if we were study something like this, we would have to have hundreds of thousands of incidents, and at the moment, I think the last statistic I saw a few years ago was something like less than 10 people die from sharks every single year. I think, internationally, it’s something like 100 bites. Sharks are a marvel of evolution. They evolved over millions and millions of years — and they evolved with their food sources, whether it’s sardines or tuna or seals or whatever it might be, they’re specialized feeders. We’ve only entered the ocean (evolutionarily) incredibly recently. We are not on the sharks’ menu. We are not something that sharks actively pursue for food. I think that most shark bite incidents are either cases of mistaken identity — where the shark makes a mistake; it’s hunting in the area, the visibility is bad, there are a lot of factors going on where the shark mistakes a human for something else. I think bites can also be defensive. I think bites can be inquisitive. Look at us humans: If we’re interested in something, we have arms and two hands. We can pick something up. We can feel it. Sharks have these receptors in their mouths on their gums. If a shark is curious about something, it investigates with its mouth. So I think a lot of shark bites could also be investigatory incidences — of course, if a great white shark makes an investigatory bite, the consequences are obviously quite drastic. There are really only a handful of incidences in the last 100 years or so where a shark has actually eaten a person. Most of the situations are a single bite, and the animal never comes back — which indicates a mistake, or curiosity or defensiveness. These are theories; we simply don’t have the number of bites to statistically determine anything conclusive.
When you speak to an audience about sharks, what’s the most important thing that you can impart?
Sharks play a critical role in the ocean. Many sharks are at the top of the food chain — they are the large, important predators, and they have an important structuring and balancing effect. If you removed all wolves from Yellowstone, or all grizzly bears out of the Tetons, you’d get an impact down the line. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in 10 years — but in 50 to 100 years’ time, you’re going to start to see impact that you haven’t anticipated. Taking care of the top of the food chain — in this case, sharks — also has a real benefit on the entire marine food chain. So I emphasize the ecological importance of sharks. I think I also stress the sheer diversity of sharks. There are in excess of 500 species of sharks. Only a handful of them have ever bitten a human. The bulk of shark species pose no danger to us whatsoever. When you say “sharks,” most people think of great whites and tiger sharks and bull sharks — but there all these incredible, fascinating animals that don’t pose any threat to us and that nobody has ever even heard of. I also highlight their incredible beauty. They’re these perfect predators that have evolved into these magnificent animals that are also incredibly beautiful when you see them and encounter them underwater for the very first time. The real star of all these shows are the images — the images of the sharks themselves. Nothing beats actually seeing the images or the videos on a giant screen. Having the person who made those images, on stage, engaging with you gives the audience a completely different perspective that’s much more awe-inspiring and also much more personal. And, hopefully, much more memorable, in the end.
Is there one misconception about sharks that persists — and is there a misconception that you see vanishing?
In the last two decades or so, the overarching myth that sharks are cold-blooded, mindless man-eaters — a myth that was incredibly prominent 20 years ago — has really become a minority view in many ways. The media and the information, the sheer volume of shark media and shark imaging coming out that’s attached to positive messages, has really shifted that mindset. Sharks have become a marine conservation icon. When it comes to sharks, I really want to transform fear into fascination, and hate into awe.
National Geographic Live! presents Thomas Peschak at the Fred Kavli Theatre on Friday, March 15, at 8 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.