In his new book, Sharks Forever: The Mystery and History of the Planet’s Perfect Predator, Saanich author Mark Leiren-Young takes a deep dive to explore why sharks aren’t the dangerous creatures society depicts them to be.
Targeted for a middle school audience, the book highlights new research such as how sharks have the capacity to show emotions and form relationships, and uncovers how human fear and climate change are causing them to fight for their existence.
But unlike most shark experts, Leiren-Young doesn’t hold a degree in science. His fascination with sharks stems from meeting and befriending Sharkwater filmmaker Rob Stewart.
After Stewart died suddenly while filming Sharkwater Extinction in 2017, Leiren-Young posted some of the audio clips he took during his numerous conversations about sharks with Stewart.
Leiren-Young was then hired to assist with the documentary’s outreach.
“Suddenly I was hired as the person to help make sure that this movie had an impact on the world,” Leiren-Young said. “I was basically thrown into the deep end with the sharks, trying to learn everything I could as quickly as possible.”
For Leiren-Young, the book is about honouring Stewart’s work and legacy. Released by Orca Book Publishers and with photographs taken by Stewart, the book spotlights new research about sharks and presents it in a bite-sized format.
“They’re officially for middle school, but they’re written so anyone can read them,” he said. “I wrote it so that any of my friends could read it and not be embarrassed to pick it up.”
To write the book, Leiren-Young interviewed countless researchers and other people who swim with sharks and call them friends.
He said many of the people he spoke to can tell individual sharks apart based on personality traits such as shyness or curiosity, and some even studied the relationships they form with each other.
When speaking to shark expert Jim Abernethy, he learned there is also research to suggest sharks have ways of communicating with each other. After Abernethy removed a stick from a shark’s mouth, other sharks then came over days later looking for him to help them out in the same way.
“The sharks must go, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who knows how to take the sticks out. I heard about you from whatever the shark grapevine is,’” Leiren-Young said. “And that’s fascinating to me.”
While he said sharks kill fewer people per year than falling vending machines, the stigma around them – which is perpetuated through popular culture with movies such as Jaws – is posing a significant threat to their existence.
“If there is an incident with a shark, you will see an attempt to basically take out every shark in the area,” he said. “Imagine if somebody fell off a horse and someone said we’d better take out that entire herd.”
Sharks Forever: The Mystery and History of the Planet’s Perfect Predator is the second book Leiren-Young has written in a series about sea creatures. The first one was about orcas and was released in 2019, and he is currently working on one about octopus.
He said the biggest challenge he faces is tying in as much new research he can into the books. With new technology and underwater cameras, researchers are constantly uncovering new information to dispel myths about underwater creatures.
“The tech is fascinating,” he said. “We’re learning things about these creatures that we never knew before.”