Shark expert tells his fish stories

A world-renowned ichthyologist visited Glendale Community College Wednesday to share tales from his years of studying the behavior of the great white shark, what leads them to attack humans, and a plea for conservation.

Known for being the first researcher to report that great whites roll their eyes when they attack their prey, Ralph Collier has studied sharks for decades, investigated about 1,500 attacks and established the Shark Research Committee that documents white shark attacks off North America’s Pacific coast.

Glendale Community College English Professor Jocelyn Heaney invited him to speak at the college, where she teaches a shark-based English class where students study the state of the oceans and shark mythology.

After showing students video footage of a white shark approaching the camera to the tone of suspenseful music, Collier noted: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen one of those guys come at you just like that.”

Though never been bitten by a shark, he showed students how to calculate a shark’s size by measuring bite marks on surfboards, buoys, fish, people, and in one case — a dog.

(The dog, named Lucky, survived the shark bite after a six-hour operation.)

With color vision and a “fabulous” sense of smell, great white sharks can grow to weigh 5,000 pounds, he said, and pick up on the electrical currents emitted by all living things.

Their attacks have taken him up and down the coast. A few years ago, shark attacks took him to Egypt where government officials there sought his help over a series of five shark attacks that occurred within a span of a few days at an exclusive resort at the southern tip of Sinai.

In two incidents, the sharks bit the buttocks of two separate women.

“Hardly ever do you see the bite to the buttocks,” Collier said. “I could not figure out what was going on.”

Both women survived those attacks, but a fifth victim died from injuries she sustained from a bite.

After studying the photos of the bites and the sharks, Collier would learn that the same sharks involved in the attacks were exposed to a diver who fed them fish months prior.

The diver, he learned, would release a single fish from one hand before revealing more fish to the sharks from a small pack tied around his lower back. The sharks had essentially been trained to seek food from humans in that fashion.

“Many times, those interactions are the result of what we have done,” Collier said of the attacks. “They have to get food from some source,” Collier said. “It’s survival...Unfortunately, it was people.”

Collier’s work has also informed him of dwindling shark populations and the detrimental human toll on sharks — especially the “finners” who capture sharks, slice off their fins and throw them back into the sea where they often land on a reef, he said.

Uric acid then released from sharks’ decomposing bodies turns into ammonia, which kills the coral polyps on the reef. Eventually, the dying reef can no longer play its crucial role in the marine ecosystem.

“All because they can get $14 to $40 a pound for the shark fins,” Collier said.


Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan


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