‘Least Racist Person’ Is Scared of Great Whites

The president jumps the shark.

Activists protest a Chinese restaurant for providing shark-fin soup.
Activists protest a Chinese restaurant for providing shark-fin soup.  (Bobby Yip / Reuters)

The President of the United States of America once lambasted the reality TV show Shark Tank. It would seem that he’s not too keen on actual shark tanks, either.

Based on an interview with the adult actress Stephanie Clifford, who performs under the name Stormy Daniels, it appears that Donald Trump is afraid of sharks. That the self-avowed least racist person is deathly scared of great whites. “You could see the television from the little dining-room table, and he was watching Shark Week, and he was watching a special about the U.S.S. something and it sank, and it was like the worst shark attack in history,” Clifford recalls. “He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks. He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’”

This is, of course, one person’s telling. But as is typical for Trump, there really is a tweet for everything:

It’s a pity. In an era of fake news, when evidence is treated as a political plaything, and when people try to will things into reality just by repeatedly saying them, here is one, timeless, inarguable, unquestionable, wholly objective statement of pure, unadulterated fact:

Sharks are awesome.

As a lineage, sharks—and their relatives, the rays and chimeras—have been around for 420 million years. Their jaws are like conveyor belts that continually send new teeth forward to replace old ones. Their skins are covered in small toothy structures called denticles that reduce drag. They can sense the minute electric fields given off by their prey. (They aren’t immune to cancer; that’s a myth.)

These widespread traits aside, sharks are also incredibly varied. When people think about them, they typically picture a long, fast-moving, sharp-finned, meat-eating torpedo—all angles and points. But the wobbegong of Australia is more of a sedate, mottled pancake with a frilly beard. The whale shark—the biggest fish in existence—is a 62-foot giant with a head like a doorstop, a back that looks like a starry night, and an appetite for plankton. The Greenland shark is a sluggish creature from the Arctic, whose lifestyle is so slow that it has one of the longest lifespans of any animal; it’s possible that Greenland sharks that were alive when the Mayflower carried pilgrims into the New World are still swimming today. I could go on.

I’m going to go on. The epaulette shark can use its fins to crawl onto land, scouring tide pools for worms and small crabs. The saw shark has elongated its snout into a long sword with teeth protruding from both edges—an adaptation so useful that sharks and rays developed it on two separate occasions. The thresher shark has weaponized its rear end by evolving a scythe-like tail; it lashes at small fish by whipping the tail over its head at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.

Perhaps most surprisingly, of the 500-plus species of shark in the ocean, around one in eight can glow. These sharks—the kitefins and lanternsharks—look like long cigars and live in the dark waters of the deep ocean. There, they use their light to camouflage themselves by canceling out any sunlight from above, and perhaps to communicate with each other by turning their lights on and off like flashing fireflies.

Most glowing sharks eat small prey like tiny fish and crustaceans, but one—the cookie-cutter shark—uses its sawlike lower jaw to gouge scoops of flesh from larger targets—hence its name. Its victims have included killer whales, dolphins, great white sharks, one unfortunate marathon swimmer, and the ocean’s apex predator—the nuclear submarine.

Go back in time, and things get even stranger. There’s a common misconception that sharks are living fossils, whose bodies have essentially remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. But I don’t see many modern sharks swimming around with anvils on their backs or coiled-up circular saws in their mouths. Even living sharks haven’t been fully catalogued: Around a fifth of all known shark species were discovered within the last two decades, and more new species are being discovered all the time.

You could forgive Trump for not knowing any of this if his only exposure to the animals is through Shark Week. The Discovery Channel’s long-running annual event attracts millions of viewers, but it has a track record of promulgating unhelpful myths about these animals. In 2013, they aired a documentary asking if Megalodon—the giant prehistoric shark that made great whites look not-that-great—is still alive. It is not.

Their documentaries about sharks that actually still exist aren’t much better. Suzannah Evans, from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that around two-thirds of Shark Week documentaries also portray sharks as violent, aggressive animals, accompanied by shots of bloody water, struggling swimmers, and reenacted deaths. And unsurprisingly, people who watch these clips become scared of sharks, and overstate their own risk of being bitten.

Sharks very rarely attack humans—and when they do, it’s usually a case of mistaken identity. As the blog Southern Fried Science notes, “more people are bitten by other people on the New York City subway each year than are bitten by sharks in the whole world.” And also, “more (fictional) people have been killed onscreen by Jack Bauer during episodes of 24 than have been killed by every fatal shark bite worldwide ... since the year 1580.”

This is an old fear, one that was thoroughly stoked by Jaws—the novel by Peter Benchley, which was adapted by Steven Spielberg. Benchley regretted the negative impact of his novel, and dedicated his later life to ocean conservation. “No, the shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain,” he wrote. “It would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”

Indeed, the second part of Trump’s old tweet—that sharks will outlast us—is not necessarily true. His administration has moved to add several shark species to the endangered list, but many of its other policies spell trouble for sharks, and for the oceans more broadly. The administration has promised to shrink marine national monuments and other sanctuaries against overfishing. It announced earlier this month that it would open up 90 percent of U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling. It withdrew a proposed rule that would have protected endangered species, including several sharks, from being caught and killed in mile-long nets meant to entrap swordfish in California.

All of this is bad news for sharks, which are among the most threatened group of backboned animals around. A large team of scientists led by Nick Dulvy has estimated that a quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. Several haven’t been seen in decades. The common skate is critically endangered. Overfishing is to blame. Every year, between 26 and 73 million sharks and rays are caught deliberately, stripped of their fins, and left to die, to sate the East Asian market for shark-fin soup. That’s especially tragic since the shark meat adds no flavor to the soup—only texture.

The consequences of these declines can be devastating. Since the 1970s, large sharks have nearly been eliminated from the eastern seaboard of the United States. Their absence allowed prey to flourish, including rays and skates that ate their way through the region’s scallops and shellfish, forcing fisheries to close. The loss of sharks ultimately meant loss of livelihoods. Their presence can do the opposite. Sharks and rays are such a draw for divers that, in the Bahamas, they generate an estimate $114 million for the economy every year—around 1.3 percent of the nation’s GDP.

Sharks, then, are linchpins. They hold their worlds together. Think about a coral reef and you’ll probably picture the vivid splendor of Finding Nemo, with multitudes of kaleidoscopic fish swimming about in the open. In reality, a healthy coral reef is one where small fish cower within the corals because the open waters are swarming with sharks and other large predators. If you dive into the water and come face-to-face with a shark, you know that things are right with the world.