An unbelievable encounter with a great hammerhead shark in the Bahamas this weekend appears to have ended on a sad note following reports that the four-metre giant was killed by onlookers.
The shark was first spotted on June 25, when it cruised into the waters of Montagu Foreshore. Even here in the Bahamas, a known hammerhead hotspot, a shark of this size is an anomaly – and, as expected, the animal drew quite the crowd. Contrary to many media reports, however, the shark's appearance in the shallows was completely normal and not a cause for concern.
Though they're known to eat a variety of fish, hammerheads prefer to feed on southern stingrays. "The rays often come into shallow water to feed and hide from predators," explains the Bahamas National Trust (BNT). "This shark [was] very inquisitive and possibly drawn to the Montagu area by the intense smell of skinned conch and fish, hoping to find a few rays."
Experts estimated the great hammerhead at around 16 feet nose to tail, which would put it near the maximum recorded length for the species. This suggests the animal was healthy, thriving and sexually mature – exactly the kind of individual the endangered population, and the ocean ecosystem as a whole, cannot afford to lose.
"Mature hammerheads have virtually no predators, but like most shark species, they are heavily fished, both commercially and recreationally," says BNT. "As a result, their numbers are rapidly declining. Like many sharks, these 'lions and tigers of the sea' play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine life that humans benefit from, especially in the Bahamas."
A taste for stingrays makes the great hammerhead of particular interest to local economies as the rays in turn feed on queen conch, one of the most important species for fisheries in the Bahamas. By keeping the ray population in check, the hammerheads indirectly allow conch to bounce back from fishing pressure, which benefits local fishermen.
Some reports suggest the Bahamas hammerhead was speared from the dock on the day it was first sighted, while others claim the animal was shot with a gun, and another suggests the animal was only grazed. While the details remain unclear, officials are investigating. It is possible that the animal survived the ordeal and moved off into safer waters despite its injuries – but a positive outcome is unlikely, say experts.
"A common reaction to such a large predator within an area frequently used by people is to spear it, either to kill it or drive it away. This is not just a local reaction, but rather an international one," says BNT. "In this case, those responsible likely acted with what they thought were good intentions to drive away the shark. However, there was minimal risk to humans."
Sadly, much of the conversation on social media focused on the danger the shark posed to local bathers. In fact, hammerheads are among the world's shiest and most elusive sharks – a trait that has earned them their "ghosts of the ocean" nickname. These animals are also incredibly sensitive to stress, which means they're more likely to die as a result of entanglement, or a fight on a sport-fishing line.
"Although these sharks certainly have the ability to cause harm, they rarely even acknowledge divers in the water," says the team. "People swim with great hammerheads and other large sharks every day in the Bahamas without incident. Swimming with such majestic beasts is an amazing experience; however, caution should always be exercised."
At this point, it's unclear whether those involved in the incident will be prosecuted and how they might be charged, but hammerhead sharks have been protected in the Bahamas since 2011. We'll be updating you as the story unfolds, so watch this space.
UPDATE 30 June, 2016: A statement has been released by Bahamas National Trust director of science and policy Shelley Cant-Woodside.
"The past couple of days have been very interesting following the conversations around the infamous Great Hammerhead that was exploring the shallows. There were a number of posts on Facebook calling for 'someone please kill that shark, [and] There was a lot of emotion pouring over social media," she said. "Even though it seems obvious to some that these endangered animals should be protected and not killed … many have been brought up to believe otherwise. And their belief is as deeply rooted as those who want to see sharks protected."
Whether or not this shark was killed remains to be determined, but by focusing on this we miss the bigger picture. This is a common occurrence, and one desperate in need of attention if we are meant to pull these endangered animals back from the brink.
"The conversation around this has benefited our country on so many levels," added Cant-Woodside. "People who don’t know sharks are protected in the Bahamas now know."
Corrected: An earlier version of this article appeared with the title, “Killing of huge 16ft great hammerhead under investigation in the Bahamas.” This has been adjusted for clarity.