Since 1975, when people think of sharks, they most often think of the movie “Jaws.”
The Steven Spielberg film about a team of men trying to stop a man-eating great white shark off Martha’s Vineyard has become a cultural icon. Who hasn’t uttered the line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
William McKeever was no different from most people in that the film long shaped his perception of sharks as dangerous creatures. That changed, however, when McKeever saw a shark-fishing tournament in Montauk, Long Island.
There, McKeever said, he saw sharks strung up and left to die, and the image disturbed him. It made him angry enough to investigate shark tournaments and sharks themselves. That led him to quit his job and embark on a two-year journey around the world to examine the life of sharks, with assistance from activists aboard Greenpeace’s flagship vessel, Rainbow Warrior.
McKeever will appear at Rehoboth Public Library, 4 p.m., Wednesday, July 17, to promote his new book, “Emperors of the Deep,” which he hopes will dispel many myths about sharks.
A former Wall Street analyst, McKeever said much of the fear people have of sharks is completely misplaced.
“They’re not man-eaters. We’re not on the menu,” he said. “But sometimes they make mistakes and attack.”
McKeever said sand tiger sharks, a fearsome-looking but mostly docile shark, will chase fish into shallow waters and sometimes mistake a human for a fish. Usually, the attacks are nothing more than a bite, as the shark quickly figures out a person is not what they want to eat, and it moves on, he said.
Although shark attacks along the North Carolina coast have been in the news recently, McKeever said sharks have more to fear from people than the other way around. While there are generally 50 to 100 shark attacks per year, he said, humans killed 100 million sharks in 2018 alone.
Delaware is generally not an area that experiences major shark activity, since they prefer colder waters, McKeever said. The most common sharks around the mid-Atlantic region are dogfish and bull sharks, he said. A native of Pittsburgh, McKeever spent his summers vacationing in Cape Cod as a kid, where there are many more sharks: great whites to makos to sand tiger sharks.
McKeever said the sharks are a crucial species. As an apex predator, they help keep populations under control and prevent smaller species from overexploiting resources. Tiger sharks, he said, eat sea turtles and dugongs, a mid-sized marine mammal similar to a seal or a manatee. Sea turtles and dugongs eat seagrass, which provides a habitat for small fish and a host of other animals. McKeever said if there were no sharks around to prey on the turtles and dugongs, they would overeat the seagrass, destroying the habitat for smaller creatures.
The human fear of sharks takes an even greater toll, McKeever said. That fear causes humans to do cruel things to sharks, and he has made it his mission to make shark tournaments illegal. Sharks help keep the ocean healthy, and by extension, humans too, as the ocean helps provide oxygen and freshwater, and influences the weather.
“I believe the ocean needs to be protected,” McKeever said. “It needs to be healthy to protect us.”
Besides the book, released Wednesday, July 3, McKeever is also preparing a documentary film to be released in 2020. To promote the book, he is heading out on a 25-city tour starting in Massachusetts and ending in St. Louis.