As summer arrives, the perceived threat of sharks is once again being brought into our collective consciousness. But are sharks really a threat to you, or do they just have a case of bad PR?

Auckland Museum’s new shark-damaged surfboard tells a curious story of our misguided fears about the species and acts as a starting point for exploring opposing perspectives.

Within the depths of Auckland Museum's 4.5 million strong collections lurks a great white object. Its home is no longer in the water, but not because its fins have been removed. Instead, the gleaming white surfboard is now retired after an encounter with a shark that left large teeth marks across its nose.

But it wasn't just the surfboard's nose that took a hit in the February 22, 2020 encounter; indeed, all three involved sustained an injury that morning. The surfboard's owner, Nick Minogue, recounts that the shark made the first hit when it nipped his left elbow and forearm, puncturing his wetsuit and slicing along his arm. The shark then latched onto the front of the surfboard, its eye looking up at Nick. Defending himself from the curious beast, Nick punched the shark in the eye until it disengaged and swam away.

Judging by the width of the bite to the board, shark expert and Auckland Museum Research Associate Clinton Duffy believes the shark to have been a three-metre great white (Carcharodon carcharias).

The encounter took place around 10.30AM. By late afternoon, it had already attracted a flurry of local media attention. Over the coming days, the story would be picked up by international news outlets. Many users on social media responded with trepidation. Who could even consider entering the water again? Aside from Nick of course, who went on a surfing trip to Dunedin the following weekend. His trip, representative of surfers' largely pragmatic view about negative shark encounters: They're exceptionally rare.

But many don't share Nick's pragmatic view of shark encounters. It is uncomfortable for some to think about encountering any marine animal in the water, let alone sharing the waves with a great white shark. For them, Nick's surfboard symbolises the threat of creatures from the blue depths. However, to float the idea that this is all it symbolises, doesn't even break the surface of what its story and subsequent reactions tell us. For many people who spend a lot of time on the water, the surfboard simply represents an uncommon meeting of a human and a shark. Such a parallel reveals the positive and negative beliefs that exist around sharks.

 

The width of the bite on the surfboard indicates the shark was a three-metre great white.

 

 

Why Auckland Museum acquired the damaged surfboard

Writing the proposal to include the surfboard in Auckland Museum's collections last year, Associate Curator, Human History Gail Romano wrote about how objects associated with negative shark encounters represent the opportunity to tell many stories related to our marine environment. Notably, it tells stories of the disconnect between the imagined threat of sharks within popular thought, and the reality for Aucklanders.

Gail referred to a map on Te Ara showing negative shark encounters around New Zealand, with clusters in the Auckland region, Dunedin and Bluff. Despite these clusters, a relatively small number have been recorded as fatal. In 2021, the New Zealand Herald reported 13 deaths from shark encounters nationally over the last 170 years. Despite this, Gail wrote that sharks still "loom large in the popular imagination". She noted they may readily come to mind in our region because Auckland is a maritime city with many elective recreation choices based on a water culture.

Auckland Museum's Head of Natural Sciences, Dr Tom Trnski, claims that negative shark encounters are actually extremely rare. “Anyone that swims or snorkels or surfs in coastal New Zealand has likely been within 100-metres of a shark – encounters are extremely unlikely. 

"You are hundreds of times more likely to be killed or injured by an interaction with a car, and lightning strikes are more of a threat.” 

 

Nick also donated a t-shirt featuring a great white to Auckland Museum. The t-shirt was gifted to him for his birthday, eight months prior to the encounter.

© T-shirt; 2020.20.3; © Auckland Museum CC BY

 

 

A platform for other stories

Conversely, the surfboard also offers an opportunity to explore stories around sharks that oppose post-Jaws fears. In particular, perspectives held within Pacific cultures and te āo Māori.

According to Associate Curator, Pacific Juliana Satchell-Deo, most Pacific Island cultures hold a strong connection to and respect for sharks.

"Pacific Islanders are connected to the sea - it provides food, ocean highways and reflects interconnectedness with each island nation through myths, legends, and oral traditions.

"Within this connectedness of practices and beliefs, the shark holds a significant role in most Pacific Island cultures. Sharks are either seen as manifestations of ancestors, totems, gods and as guides for fishermen and voyagers."

Similarly, sharks are also respected in te āo Māori. According to Curator, Pou Arahi Kahutoi Te Kanawa, “The shark has been a revered animal in te āo Māori, as it has the strength and ability to navigate the deep seas of the great Moana nui a Kiwa and holds mana and strength to fight to the bitter end when threatened.

“There is a whakataukī, or proverb: Kia mate mangōpare, kei mate wheke. Never to give up the fight until the bitter end.

“This relates to the strength of the ‘mangōpare’, the hammerhead shark, that never gives up on survival, unlike the ‘wheke’, the octopus. This is also likened to the agility of mind and power, of a survivor. With that thought in mind, this gives rise to the respect that Māori have for sharks. Honouring their space and environment, and the tenacity of their survival techniques.

“The mako shark’s teeth are a prized possession of many Māori women, kuia and kaumatua which is used for body adornment such as earrings. This shows the richness of mutual respect, and the shark’s teeth are embedded in a kotiate, which is a rare cutting tool for flesh. This is also a way of respecting the afterlife of the mako shark.”

 

The importance of stories within conservation

Auckland Museum’s surfboard isn’t just a damaged piece of sports equipment, but a platform for exploring the diverse stories surrounding sharks and our marine environment.

With shark populations declining by around 70% in the past half-century, understanding these stories is more important than ever for combatting misinformation and supporting conservation efforts. An example of the power of effective storytelling within conservation can be seen in the Pacific.

“Pacific Islanders’ interconnectedness with the sea in each island nation is now being told through old stories and practices mixed with the new stories and practices for conservation and guardianship of sharks,” says Juliana.

“Pacific Island nations have been leading the way in shark conservation. Palau has been acknowledged as having the world’s first national shark sanctuary, stopping commercial shark fishing in the waters and giving a sanctuary for sharks to live and thrive in.1

"In Tokelau, sharks are still regarded as ‘manu sa’, or a sacred or prohibited animal and in 2011, Tokelau established a shark sanctuary within its exclusive economic zone of 319,031 square kms of ocean! Samoa, Kiribati, Cook Islands and Aotearoa (NZ) are said to have also started work on creating shark sanctuaries.”1

 

 

1. Sawada, J. (2019, December 16). How the Pacific Region Paved the Path to Successful Shark Conservation. Retrieved December 2021, from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2019/12/16/how-the-pacific-region-paved-the-path-to-successful-shark-conservation 

 

Background image: 6’6” Haydenshapes surfboard with visible shark bite mark around the nose of the board; 2020.20.1; © Auckland Museum CC BY
Header image: White shark / Mangö Tuatini (Carcharodon carcharias); MA28600; © Auckland Museum CC BY

Learn more

Find out what it was like to witness Nick’s encounter with the three-metre great white and read about a story told from the Solomon Islands, where humans can become sharks.

From an eyewitness
ACQUISITION NOTES

From an eyewitness

A surfer who was also in the water at the time of Nick's negative shark encounter provided a description from his point of view, including a sketch of what he saw.  

"When I heard your shout I thought you had wiped out or missed a wave. I couldn’t understand the words. I turned around and saw you sitting on your board facing the shark in front of you biting the nose. 

"It stuck out of the water almost as high as you were sitting on the board. It was dark grey, fat and almost rectangular in shape. The body mass sticking out of the water was bigger than yours. It just felt like a movie scene really. The shark looked almost fake. Particularly the shape was so boxy from my perspective. I couldn’t see any fins on it, just this big shape of wet skin."

 

Image: A sketch the eyewitness made of Nick's shark encounter.

A story of sharks from the Solomon Islands
PACIFIC STORIES

A story of sharks from the Solomon Islands

Pacific Island nations are home to beliefs that humans are interconnected to the ocean, including sharks. An example of this comes from the Solomon Islands, as Associate Curator, Pacific Juliana Satchell-Deo explains. 

“Featured in the nation's coat of arms, sharks embody the transition between the living world and the spirit world in many areas of the Solomon Islands.1 This belief is partly based on eastern Solomon Island’s kastom2 and oral histories – one example is the story of Kakafu and his brother Karemanua, a shark god.

“Kakafu a mortal, witnessed the tabu3 transformation of Karemanua into a shark and Kakafu was attacked and bitten by his brother Karemanua for his wrongdoings.4

“This myth upheld the belief that upon their death - notable chiefs would return as sharks from the spirit world.5 A carved repository shaped in the form of a mythological shark would be the vessel that would transport the chief’s spirit between both worlds.

“Looking back, the introduction of missionaries, Christianity and colonisation saw the decline in these kastoms and the beliefs associated with sharks.”

1. Hylton S., White W. T., Chin A. (2017) The sharks and rays of the Solomon Islands: a synthesis of their biological diversity, values and conservation status. Pacific Conservation Biology 23, 324-334.

 

2Kastom (Pijin) can refer to shared traditions, history, religion, ritual, medicine and magic - but also to contemporary ideas and institutions perceived to be grounded in indigenous concepts and principles.

 

3Tabu refers to sacred, secret or taboo, forbidden.

 

4. Mead, S. M. (1973). Material culture and art in the Star Harbour region, Eastern Solomon Islands. [Toronto]: Royal Ontario Museum

 

5. Benguigui, M. C. B., Bataille-Benguigui, M. C., & Pawelko, J. (2001). The Shark in Oceania: from Mental Perception to the Image. Pacific Arts, 23/24, 87–102.

 

Images: White shark / Mangö Tuatini (Carcharodon carcharias); MA28600; © Auckland Museum CC BY