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Opinion Op-Ed

Forget 'Shark Week': They aren't the only fish in the sea

Americans are obsessed with sharks.

Lately, the headlines have focused on Maui, which had eight shark attacks — two fatal — last year. Never mind that swimming in Hawaii's ocean is safer than driving the roads; tourists and natives alike have emptied store shelves of anti-shark devices, despite their dubious effectiveness and reports that a great white shark ate one.

Luckily, ferocious sharks are rare and the devastation of a shark attack even rarer. But still, every summer since 1987, the Discovery Channel has capitalized on shark fears with its annual "Shark Week," a video carnival of teeth, lunging predation and more teeth.

But why are we so fixated on sharks, when the oceans contain so many other fascinating, wild and intense species? Perhaps what we need is an "Un-Shark Week" to introduce Americans to some of the sea's truly extreme animals, and help them over their shark obsession.

Is it speed you're after? The fastest fish in the sea is not a shark. Sailfish hold the unofficial record at 60 mph, and well-documented speed trials have clocked both tuna and wahoo at nearly 50 mph. By contrast, the most celebrated human swimmers train their whole lives to manage 6 to 7 mph. Billfish such as marlin and sailfish hunt at such high speeds that their cold-blooded senses struggle to keep up. In response, these fish have evolved heaters in their brains and eyes, supercharging them to perceive prey flashing by and to gulp them down at highway velocities.

You want ferocious? The deep sea's most epic battles don't involve sharks. They feature two of the world's largest creatures, sperm whales and giant squid, and their combat happens in near total darkness. The hunting whale's sharp lower jaw slices into the squid's lean, rubbery muscle. At the same time, countless sharp "teeth" on the squid's tentacles gouge wounds into the sperm whale's expansive head. We can tell the species of squid from the scars it leaves: circular saw marks for the giant squid and razor-straight claw marks for the colossal squid. We also know who tends to win because the hard beaks of these squids end up in the stomachs of sperm whales all over the world.

The ocean's deadliest predators are as un-sharklike as can be imagined. The slender, demure cone snail grows a maximum of 3 inches long, but it can kill a human with a single jab from its small, harpoon-like tooth. These snails specialize in hunting fish, and they have evolved a potent venom that shuts down nerve and muscle function in an instant.

Lurking beneath the sand, with its chemical-sensing proboscis sniffing the water like a tubular snake, a cone snail waits for a fish to venture near. The proboscis rears up and shoots a hollow harpoon, lancing the fish's flesh and pumping it full of venom for a near-instant death. Humans are rarely deliberately attacked, but when an acquisitive diver pockets a live snail, things can turn deadly. The snail's harpoon, it turns out, can penetrate swimsuit lining.

If it's size you want, the planet's largest fish is indeed a shark: the languid, plankton-grazing whale shark. But the oceans' great mammals are far bigger. The blue whale, in fact, is the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet. Traveling the oceans with an efficiency shipwrights envy, these goliaths live serene lives that may stretch for centuries. They can live longer than any other mammal and probably longer than any shark on Earth, but they cannot claim the title of the ocean's longest-lived creatures. This honor goes to colonial organisms such as cold-water corals off the coast of Hawaii or the glass sponges that build titanic works of architecture below the waves, tending their quiet cathedrals over thousands of years.

It should come as no surprise that sharks grab so few superlatives: fastest, deepest, deadliest and so on. After all, they compete for those titles alongside millions of other ocean species, all just as driven to win the game of life. These species thrive in places that have demanded amazing adaptations — such as hydrothermal vents where the water is heated above the boiling point. Or they live in familiar habitats in startling ways.

The abundance of attention has been a double-edged tooth for sharks: We may understand them better, but we fear them more. They'd benefit from sharing the limelight with some of the other amazing ocean creatures. Let "Un-Shark Week" begin.

Stephen Palumbi is a professor of marine biology at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. Anthony Palumbi is a novelist and video-game writer. They are the authors of the forthcoming book "The Extreme Life of the Sea."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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