New MUM series
Socializing with sharks
When Oliver Jahraus visits the Maldive Islands or the atolls of Micronesia, he unpacks his wetsuit first, not his holiday reading. After all, as a literary scholar, he is familiar with the tale of Mack the Knife. – He comes for the sharks.
Oliver Jahraus (49) can’t remember what book he was reading on the strand on the Maledives when the thought first occurred to him. His wife was scuba-diving in the lagoon, and he suddenly decided he wanted to try it out too. So he enrolled in a course for beginners, and – “I found that just being underwater is such a marvelous feeling,” he says. Back home in Munich, Professor Jahraus holds the Chair in Contemporary German Literature and Media at LMU. His research interests focus on theoretical approaches to literature and the media, art and the avant-garde, and – in particular – the work of (no, not Bertolt Brecht!) Franz Kafka. But that reflective pause in his reading on the beach, some 15 years ago, was the beginning of a very different passion: Diving in waters where he is likely to encounter sharks. On his return from that vacation on the Maledives, Jahraus took several courses in scuba-diving held on and in Starnberg Lake, and on every subsequent holiday he and his wife spent more time under water than on land, in places like the Maledives, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, or on the coral islands of the Pacific Ocean. “We discovered that the most fascinating creatures to be found in the sea are the sharks,” he says, and his animated descriptions of the grace and power that these predators display in their native habitat are a testament to their enduring fascination for him.
Schools of hammerheads
Since then, his vacation plans have been dictated by the prospects of seeing sharks. Last year’s prime destination was a tiny island in the immense expanse of the Pacific. “The trip there took 54 hours. We arrived on our small ship to find a bare pillar of rock, hundreds of meters high – and we were going to spend the next 10 days in these waters. It felt like a nightmare! But his mood brightened as soon as he went over the side. “We saw hammerhead sharks – not just a few, but whole schools of them, maybe up to 50 of them in all.” What’s more, when the divers lay flat on the sea-bottom these normally shy sharks moved in closer to investigate. “It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic!” Another highlight was a stately procession of Galapagos sharks, each up to 3 meters long, “really majestic creatures”.
Jahraus and his wife always dive with a small group led by an experienced dive guide. Every dive is preceded by a briefing, during which the guide gives a detailed description of the reef, indicating underwater landmarks which can serve as orientation points. Then he goes through the checklist: Is everyone paired off with a diving partner? Are the oxygen tanks, depth gauges and regulators in full working order? “In such small, well organized groups, one can dive safely, without risk. And the photographic records of their dives show spectacular details of marine life: Hammerhead sharks with their unmistakable front ends, the smaller reef sharks that remain in inshore waters, the whale shark (as its name suggests, it is the largest shark species) and even close-ups of the iconic great white shark. – For Oliver Jahraus made his first acquaintance with the Great White in the spring of this year, on Neptune Island off South Australia.
When the Great White butts the cage
“A mature white shark weighs between 1 and 2 tons, and is unbelievably powerful and incredibly elegant,” Jahraus says. “With two flicks of its tail, it can reach a speed that catapults it clear out of the water.” When this species is on the prowl, diving parties go down in specially designed metal cages. “If the shark feels like it, it may lunge at the cage and butt into it. When that happens, all one can do is trust that the welder has done a good job fixing the bars in place!” It is, however, possible for divers to leave the cage underwater without putting themselves in danger. “But this is done only if it is obvious that the shark is not in hunting mode and there are no younger specimens nearby.” In fact, according to Jahraus, diving with sharks is much less risky than it sounds. “Only about 1% of the 300 or so species known are really dangerous to humans, the great white shark, the bull shark and the tiger shark. All the others are harmless. And, anyway, humans don’t really fit on the typical shark’s menu.” Nevertheless, one should take care even with the smaller species – when feeding them, for instance. “You’ve got to keep your arm tucked close to your body, otherwise there’s a risk that the animal will – accidentally – take the arm for the proffered food item.”
Diving, Jahraus says, is not just a passion, it is also practical habitat conservation. “In many countries around the world, people get really hysterical about sharks.” However, sharks are hunted not only because people regard them as an acute threat to life and limb, they are also slaughtered for economic gain. “But hobby divers provide the basis for a tourist economy – and attitudes are changing as local people begin to realize that these endangered animals deserve protection.” His next destination is the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and he is looking forward to more close encounters with the Great White. ajb
This article originally appeared in MUM, the Münchner UniMagazin, as the first in a new series entitled “Researchers’ Recreations” which is devoted to some of the unusual pastimes favored by LMU researchers when they are not at work. The new issue of MUM (in german) is now accessible online and available in hardcopy.