Since the movie “Jaws,” the sight of a dorsal fin slicing through the water has become one of the most evocative images of fear known to man.
But sightings of sharks in the clear coastal waters around Cayman are not a reason to steer clear of the ocean, experts have said after two videos of different sharks were recorded close to shore over the holiday weekend.
A tourist captured a video of a small blacktip reef shark in shallow water just a few feet off Cemetery Beach in West Bay on Thursday.
On Monday, Stefan Baraud recorded a video of a 7-foot hammerhead shark near Starfish Point, a few hundred yards from shore.
Mr. Baraud said he was thrilled to see the shark.
“It is certainly not what I expected to see on a Monday boating off of Starfish Point. It was definitely an awesome sight and goes to show how amazing our marine environment is,” he said.
Others have reacted with fear to the videos, circulated widely on social media, with some saying they will stay out of the water.
But Department of Environment experts say there is no reason to be afraid. According to John Bothwell, senior research officer for the DOE, smaller sharks in particular are commonly foraging in shallow coastal waters around Cayman.
He said, “Cayman is fortunate to have several species of sharks in its waters, some of which like shallow water where they can either birth their pups or find small fish and shellfish to feed on.
“This is why people sometimes see sharks close to shore. Larger sharks tend to stay further offshore, but like other fish, sharks of almost any size can be seen in almost any depth of water, if you’re very lucky.”
He said sharks generally try to avoid people, which is why it was unusual for anyone to see them or film them close to shore.
“These sharks are not in shallow water looking for people, they’re looking for their normal food. In fact, they’re normally going to be scared off by people, which is why almost every shark video ends with the shark swimming away,” he said.
Ordinarily, sharks do not present any threat to humans. Neither the hammerhead nor blacktip reef shark have been blamed for any fatal attacks on people throughout history, according to the International Shark Attack File.
The DoE does not track “fish attacks” but according to Mr. Bothwell, most such attacks have involved animals attracted to dead fish, such as lionfish speared by cullers.
Ellen Cuylaerts, a photographer and scuba diver who has spent many hours in Cayman’s waters photographing sharks, said people should be respectful but not fearful when they encounter big marine animals.
“Sharks don’t eat people,” she said. “We’re not on the menu, and we’re really blessed in Cayman with great visibility, so sharks don’t mistake us for big fish.” She said humans represent a far greater threat to sharks than they do to us.
“Sharks have been here longer than us, and the last decennia we are destroying the balance. We have to learn to respect them and use the same waters. We have to learn about their behavior…When in the water, take goggles or a mask to enjoy fish life and if you see a shark, you’re lucky,” she said.
Mr. Bothwell said sharks are a vital “top level predator” that help keep populations of other animals in balance, vital to a healthy reef ecosystem. They are also worth tens of millions of dollars to the island’s tourism product, according to research commissioned by the DoE.
“Divers like to see sharks and will pay more to come to destinations with healthy shark populations,” he said. “If Cayman is successful in protecting our sharks and their numbers increase, their value in tourism would also increase.
“So the next time someone sees a shark by the beach, do what people have done recently: Take a picture and be happy that you’ve seen one of Cayman’s most charismatic marine animals up close. But you don’t have to be afraid of it. Respectful yes, but not afraid.”