It’s Shark Week, but we’re not here for shots of Great Whites (mostly because we’re an audio medium). We’re joined by Melissa Marquez, who specializes in the intersection of shark folklore and conservation. We chat about making scientific education accessible, human infested beaches, and what a shark-filled Big Brother house would look like!
Melissa Marquez is the founder of The Fins United Initiative and hosts the Spanish language podcast, ConCiencia Azul, which interviews Spanish-speaking marine scientists, conservationists, grad students, photographers, and more from around the world. You can find out more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.
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Our favorite Skillshare class this week is “Write a Fantasy Adventure: Discover Mythology and Create Your Epic Tale.”
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Amanda: Welcome to Spirits Podcast, a boozy dive into mythology, legends, and folklore. Every week we pour a drink and learn a new story from around the world. I'm Amanda.
Julia: And I'm Julia.
Amanda: And this is episode 88, Sharks, with Melissa Marquez.
Julia: Yeah, currently Eric, our wonderful, wonderful editor, is one mile away from where they filmed the movie, Jaws. There have been a bunch of shark sightings happening at our favorite beaches here on Long Island, and it's Shark Week.
Amanda: It is actually Shark Week, and we are very excited not just to bring you an expert in sharks, an actual expert about actual shark animals here in the world, but also someone who studies the folklore of her subject as part of her career. Melissa is one of my favorite people now, even though we just met the day that we recorded this episode, and I think she's amazing.
Julia: Yeah, she was incredibly cool. Incredibly well spoken. And the topic that she's chosen to investigate and study is just one of the coolest things I ever told people about, and I'm really excited for her.
Amanda: We are also really excited to welcome our newest patrons, Sam, Jessica, Brittany, Morgan, and Saint Sweet Sir Stereo. What a name.
Julia: That is quite a name.
Amanda: As well as our supporting producer-level patrons. Phillip, Julie, Cristina, Josh, Eeyore, Ella, Ashley Marie, Neil, Jessica, Maria, Ryan, Feel Fresh, and Deborah.
Julia: They all never get sand in their flip flops when they get to the beach, and so they have to immediately take the flip flops off, but then the sand is too hot and it burns the bottom of your feet. That never happens to them.
Amanda: Oh yeah, never, ever, ever, ever. And folks who can walk on sand of any temperature at any time, will be our legend-level patrons. Cassie, Sandra, Audra, Mercedes, Jack Marie, and Leann Davis.
Julia: Yeah. They are all wonderful, wonderful human beings who have feet made of steel.
Amanda: Absolutely. Julia, what are we drinking during this episode?
Julia: Shark Bites, which is a wonderful, wonderful cocktail that, if you are a patron and you get the recipe cards, that is what our recipe card is this week.
Amanda: Yeah, every single week, Julia makes delicious cocktails, one alcoholic and one non-alcoholic for those that support us on Patreon at patreon.com/spiritspodcast. They are great and you should check them out.
Julia: Also, this week we are sponsored by Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community where you can learn and teach just about anything. Visit skillshare.com/spirits to get two months of Skillshare Premium for just 99 cents and we'll tell you a little bit more about our favorite class this week later on in the episode.
Amanda: That's less than a popsicle, yo.
Julia: It is definitely less than a popsicle.
Amanda: You just threw me off there, but like yeah, it is. That's fucking true.
Julia: She just gave me an empty nod. I was thinking about walking back from the beach, you pass an ice cream truck, anyway ...
Amanda: I'm thinking the push up popsicles, the ones that you have as kids that you just throw in the freezer and there's multiple flavors, but they all taste the same.
Julia: Yeah, we would go through like two Costco boxes of those per week at my house.
Amanda: Checks out.
Julia: We would also love to remind you that there are transcripts available for all new episodes, as well as a link to our merch and a About page, a Press page, if you know someone who writes articles about podcasts and you want to be like, "Yo, my favorite podcast is Spirits," and you can give them that link to spiritspodcast.com.
Amanda: So thanks again to Melissa for joining us. We really, really had a fun time with this episode and we think you're going to, as well.
Julia: And you can find all her info, as with all of our guests, in the description of this podcast to follow her on Twitter. She's excellent there.
Julia: And without further ado, enjoy Spirits podcast, episode 88, Sharks, with Melissa Marquez.
Amanda: We are so delighted to be joined by Melissa today who is going to tell us some very interesting stories about sharks. Melissa, how did you come to specialize in sharks, and what do you do for a living?
Melissa: Hi guys, I'm a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator. And I have a bachelor's degree in marine ecology and conservation from Florida in the United States, and then moved across the world to New Zealand to get my master's in marine biology.
My parents kind of joked that my love affair with marine biology started when I was a baby and The Little Mermaid was the only movie that would shut me up at three o'clock in the morning. I feel really bad for my dad, sorry.
And yeah, just during my undergraduate degree, I was really lucky to travel all over the world and participate in a lot of shark research which cemented my love for wildlife predators. And I've always been interested in misunderstood predators and I feel like sharks are the most misunderstood of all 'cause they just get to have such a bad rap that they really don't deserve.
And so, I'm currently in Sidney, Australia in between a master's degree and looking for a PhD. But right now I'm looking at chondrichthyan, which is the sharks, skates, rays and the chimeras. So I'm looking at chondrichthyan depictions in folklores and myths and I'm interested in seeing how people form attitudes towards predators, specifically land predators versus marine predators like sharks. And then seeing if the larger regions public opinion matches the local folklore or myth. And if that perception of these animals sways conservation initiatives.
Julia: Okay, that's the coolest thing I've ever heard ever.
Amanda: Wow, that is the coolest thing in the world. And you're also a podcaster, is that right?
Melissa: I am a podcaster, yeah. I run ConCiencia Azul, which is a completely Spanish marine science podcast where I get to interview Spanish speaking marine scientists, students, photographers, videographers from all around the world talking about their science essentially.
Julia: That's so awesome. And I think we actually do have a lot of listeners who would be super into that.
Melissa: Yay! I'm really happy with what I'm doing, both podcast-wise and also this kind of pet project of mine. Just 'cause I'm learning a lot about, not only different sciences that are going around the world, but also a lot about the different cultures and the animals worldwide. And I keep getting a constant, "Whoa, I didn't know that." And that makes this kind of research so interesting to me.
Julia: That is definitely the best feeling when you're doing research and you're like, "Oh my God, I never knew that before. How did I not know that?"
Melissa: Exactly. And for me, it's interesting because nowadays a large majority of people are afraid of sharks and sharks weren't always feared. In fact, back in the days, they were often treated like gods. And recognizing that the world didn't always have this universal fear of sharks, I really wanted to know how people went from having spiritual connections with these animals to many people painting them as villains.
Julia: That's so cool. I'm just like still overwhelmed by how cool this whole topic is.
Amanda: And I love too this kind of burgeoning online community of science communicators. Because, like the science is astounding but when you get to understand the facts and understand that narrative in the broader experience of the world, like that to me, is when science becomes freaking incredible. Is when it intersects with and shapes my understanding of my daily and lived experience because everything is science. So I think it makes so much sense for scientists to do the anthropological, cultural, historical research that people normally do not in the field.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think that ... I mean, science communication has always been around to a degree but I think it's becoming a lot more popular now because we are starting to realize how important the general public is. And I'm not saying they haven't always been important, it's more of you need the general public to have a degree of a science literacy in order to be a wiser community and make better choices. And that's so important nowadays.
And so, I am a very big proponent of getting rid of jargon, getting rid of those big words. I love open access, journals. I think any kind of research we do should be available for whoever's interested in reading it. Because then what's the point of doing it if you just share it with just an exclusive group? Like what's the point of that? You're leaving a large majority out. So I definitely think we're going to see a lot more collaborations, and not only between scientists and science communicators, but also across other degrees as well, like you were saying Amanda. I think it's really, really important that we start having marriages between these subjects.
Amanda: Yeah. And like how many other young girls and black and brown girls are going to be interested in being navigators and other kinds of marine related occupations after seeing Moana? Like there's not just one example of cool ocean movies anymore.
Melissa: Exactly. And I mean, it's one of those as why I'm such a ... I really I'm a champion for minorities and women, specifically Latino women, just because I am Latino. But I grew up with not knowing any Latino marine biologists. In fact, I knew very little marine biologists who were female, period, besides Sylvia Earle and Eugenie Clark, which Eugene Clark is famous specifically for sharks.
And so, I actually did a whole entire TED talk talking about sharks and female scientists more like a new thing. So both really being there but not getting the spotlight that they deserve and talking about why diversity is so important. So yeah, I think that the more the science communicators we have, the better, because it allows these upcoming generations to see themselves among these leaders and I think that's really important.
Amanda: That's amazing and we'll absolutely link to your talk as well as ConCiencia Azul in the description of this podcast.
Melissa: Thank you.
Julia: I guess I want to dive into the folklore aspect of your research now. You did touch on it slightly before, but I think that ... I guess we could start with maybe the stories that sort of got you into this area of research to begin with. Like what was the first story that grabbed your attention and made you think, "Wow, this is something that happens throughout the world and this is the topic that I want to focus on."
Melissa: Yeah. I think the first that came or what planted the idea in my head was the fact that there is a large majority of people that are afraid of sharks. Even with the science out there saying that it is such a low probability of you ever having an encounter with a shark, let alone a fatal one. Just close your eyes and think about sharks one second. What do you think of automatically when you here the word shark?
Julia: I think of jaws which is probably not the best situation.
Melissa: Yeah. But that's it. The majority of people think of jaws, some think of Sharknado now. Even more-
Amanda: Oh no.
Julia: I'm so sorry for that.
Melissa: I know. It pains me. But hey, they have pretty good diversity with that last movie with a lot of different sharks. But yeah, a lot of people usually have a negative connotation to it. And Snapchat actually had a poll of over 250,000 votes and 64% of them voted yes, they're still afraid of sharks. Even with all of the facts, they're still afraid of sharks.
I was just brand new married and we were island-hopping to go back to New Zealand 'cause we lived in New Zealand at the time. And we stopped at Fiji and in the airport, or by the airport, there was a mural of the shark-god, Dakuwaqa in Fiji. And basically that that shark-God protects people when they're at sea and the coral reefs. And that's kind of when it started when I was like, "Huh, that's really interesting."
I mean, I've always been interested in mythology and folklore and legends but I never thought about it in regards to sharks until that moment. And so I started collecting stories and it was interesting because then I started thinking about the attitudes of people. And so, like I said earlier, I'm interested in seeing how people form attitudes towards the predators and how those attitudes vary between land versus marine predators and if that perception sways conservation initiatives. Which leads me to the second part of my research which is to see if the larger regions, public opinion towards these animals actually matches the local folklore or myth.
And then the third part is seeing if the myth matches the animals. So the example of Dakuwaqa, protects people when they're at sea and the coral reefs. And yes, sharks do really keep coral reefs safe in a way. Coral reefs are actually healthier if there are more sharks present. And because sharks control mid-sized predators, who are either their prey or competitors. And actually shark poop is kind of like fertilizer for coral reefs in a way. And so-
Julia: That's so cool.
Melissa: Yeah, it's awesome. And that's kind of an example of where shark worship and conservation initiatives align. Now, be it due to the belief in sharks and that spiritual connection or the belief in science, not exactly sure. But Fiji being home to Dakuwaqa, the ancient shark-god, almost 70% of the around 75 species of elasmobranchs inhabiting those waters are considered threatened or endangered.
So those island communities actually responded by creating the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. And it's actually the first official marine protected area or MPA for sharks in Fijian waters which is amazing. I'm doing a little bit more research with these things to see if these kind of folklores and conservation measures line up pretty nicely, especially in the Indo-Pacific islands where a lot of these myths and legends are based out of. And of course, not all folklore and conservation measures do line up so nicely.
Julia: A lot of times in the show, we'll talk about the intricacies and interwoven nature of humanity and folklore and also the topics in which those folklore are focusing on. And so I think this is really interesting because this is exactly up our alley. This is the kind of what is leading into the other when it comes to these three topics like conservation, the species and then the folklore. And I think that is so on point for us and we're so glad to have you here.
Melissa: No, I'm glad to be talking about it. Again, I think obviously it's pretty interesting. And it's something that a lot of people don't think about. I think the art of passing down myths and legends and folklore is slowly starting to fade, and that makes me really sad because it's just such an integral part of a lot of societies. And so, this is kind of my way of preserving some of that.
Amanda: I think it's such an incredible mission. As you were asking us about our first image of sharks, it struck me how, I don't know, human-centered our view of animals currently is. And in older traditions that understood humans as one part of a really interwoven ecosystem. It's a lot easier to recognize that predators, like they have their place just like we have our place, just like mealworms have their place as well versus all these kind of images of sharks that we have that are so fraud.
It's like sharks that are being imported or exploited or hunted or otherwise like in situations where ... Of course you would react in a violent way, 'cause who wouldn't? Versus an understanding of the world that is a lot more wholistic and then you see like yeah, big scary things can be our protectors if we don't see every single thing as a thing to be either conquered or exploited by the human species.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, in some legends they are painted as these fearsome sea monsters or tricksters. But in the majority of them that I found so far, they are these helpful sea gods that more often than not protect people. And I think these myths and legends helped human kind understand the role of sharks in the world before we really knew any scientific facts about sharks. And to be fair, I find these myths to be fun to read and help us understand how our ancestors thought about sharks as well.
Julia: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I mean, the oral tradition is so important especially when you're considering the fact that it lends itself to understanding, "Hey, this is what our ancestors appreciated and what they respected and what was important to them at the time that these stories were being told."
Melissa: I went to the Te Papa Museum in Wellington which is a free museum. I was like, "Holy crap, a free museum? Awesome." I would spend all my money!
Julia: More of those please.
Amanda: I know.
Melissa: We went there and there's a whole entire section just about the Maori and their beliefs and talking about the haka and everything else. And one of the myths that was there, was actually the Maori myth of Kawariki and the shark man. So Kawariki was a princess who feel in love with this peasant boy essentially named Tutira. And her father was a sorcerer king and was not happy about the matchup whatsoever.
So he cursed Tutira and turned him into a shark. The two actually still met in secret and would swim together at night. And one day, there was a huge tsunami that destroyed the entire village and swept all of the villagers out to sea. And Tutira was still a shark and he actually saved the villagers and brought them back to shore. And once Kawariki's father realized that the shark had saved them and it was Tutira, he was actually so impressed by this heroism essentially that he actually turned Tutira back into a human and apologized by letting him marry Kawariki.
So, I mean, here in this one myth, you've got a shark being a punishment essentially and kind of being feared to suddenly being a hero. And I think that's what a lot of people ... It kind of mirrors what a lot of people are feeling nowadays with sharks. In Massachusetts, I think it was last summer or the summer before, there was a great white shark that actually washed up to shore. And it was struggling, like it was still alive, it was gasping for breath. And instead of people just sitting there taking pictures and being afraid of this animal, they actually formed a human chain to get water onto this animal's gills. 'Cause that's how they breathe, they don't have lungs like you and I. To keep it alive until help got there to bring it back into the ocean. And it's-
Julia: I remember that video.
Melissa: Yeah, it was ... I mean, it went viral. And it's kind of like that where I think yes, a lot of people still demonize sharks, but I think they're starting to realize how important these animals are. And that makes me really happy.
Amanda: My mom is a professional lifeguard, ocean lifeguard, and she commands a sort of field just outside of New York City that gets a lot of people from the city visiting. So it's people with varying degrees of swimming capacity. And it's an ocean beach so they have a number of rescues every single day. And also being on the shores of Long Island, there are whales and sharks and stingrays and other kind of ocean creatures that either are swimming right near where the bathers normally would be, or who wash up from time to time.
And I have definitely seen, even in the course of my lifetime, attitudes both at the park administration and just among my mom and the people who are there every day, like keeping bathers safe. That's less like how dare other creatures infringe on our right to swim here or boogie board or whatever. And a lot more like, "Hey, this is nature, this is the ecosystem. We respect the ocean and if we do that then it respects us." And stuff like that. And more kind of interest as well on the public side of not being frustrated that you can't swim but more like, "Isn't this amazing? Like we're here in the presence of an animal but is so much older and bigger than we'll ever be." So I am hopeful in the trajectory that indicates for the future.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the phrases that irks me more than anything else is shark-infested waters. And I'm like, where are they supposed to go? That's their home. I'm like, I can understand it if-
Amanda: What a human infested planet.
Melissa: Right. I'm like, okay I can understand it if they start coming on to shore, have grown legs and are at your local Walmart or something. I get that. But I mean, if they're in the water at that point, it's like wouldn't it be the other way around where it's human infested beaches? Which to be honest, that kind of true during spring break and summer.
Julia: It certainly does.
Amanda: Yeah, it really does.
Melissa: I think ... And I'm one of those people that if I see it in headline I, I don't want to say I call out the journalist but I do make a little bit of a stink of it being like, "Are you kidding me? We're still doing this?" Because it's just words are so powerful and a lot of them have a bad connotation.
If you notice when I said earlier a fatal shark encounter instead of shark attack. Because attack makes it seem as if they are planning this, like they are going to go after you, it is in their head. No, it's an encounter. Like they don't want human-
Amanda: A human like threatened them.
Melissa: Yeah, they don't want humans. We taste like crap to them. There is nothing about us that they find delicious. If people get anything out of this, it's we're on the menu for these guys and these girls. They don't want us.
A lot of times when someone has an encounter with one of these animals, it's usually by an accident. And by that I mean surfers on a surfboard that looks like a sea turtle or a seal, people wearing shiny jewelry, people being in the middle of a group of bait fish which is some of their prey, people being down current from a bloody fish or from fishermen having a ton of fish and it's just like a chum slick is what we call it.
So usually, there are other factors that people don't pay attention to. And then you know, there are the stupid factors of people going up and kissing sharks on the mouth and then they're like, "Oh, why did it bite me?" Buddy, I'd bite you too if you kissed me on the mouth. They get a bad reputation and I find it's so funny that the statistics, you're more likely to get trampled by a cow or get struck by lightning or get smashed by a vending machine than you are ever of encountering a shark.
I don't see cow week, I don't see vending machine week, I don't see these statistics on vending machines. Like ...
Amanda: 'Cause that will make Discovery Channel a lot of money.
Melissa: Cow week, that's what I'm looking forward to, cow week.
Amanda: Yeah, or like a 24/7 goat livestream be like, "Hey, listen, those hooves are so sharp."
Julia: That sounds like a dream.
Amanda: We are sponsored this week by Skillshare. Now, not only are the people at Skillshare some of the most amazing folks we've ever worked with, but Skillshare is also like the coolest website for learning anything you want. You can learn stuff about your profession, whether that's like marketing or coding or graphic design. And then stuff about hobbies like cooking and crafting. Last time I talked about claymation videos.
Julia: That was so cool.
Amanda: But this week, Julia and I both took this course that I absolutely loved.
Julia: Yeah, the course is called Write a Fantasy Adventure: Discover Mythology and Create Your Epic Tale, which is so, so up our alley it's ridiculous. So it's taught by Morgan Lindsay Nelson. She teaches you how to use mythology to inspire and expand your imagination, how to use it to spark an idea of your own original fantasy world, and how to write characters that readers will fall in love with and admire.
Amanda: Yeah, it is so cool, and it definitely plays upon some of those narrative tropes and heroes journey type things that we talk about here on the show. Not only can you learn how to write your own fantasy novel or tale or audio drama or whatever it might be, but it also made me think a lot about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels that I read before.
Julia: It really kind of lets you look into, "Oh, this is what the hero's journey is. These are the roles that these characters can play," and help you utilize those both in your reading and your writing.
Amanda: And you can join the millions of students already learning on Skillshare with a special offer that's just for Spirits listeners. You can get two months of Skillshare for just 99 cents at skillshare.com/spirits. That's skillshare.com/spirits for two months of unlimited access to all 20,000 plus classes for just 99 cents.
Julia: That is definitely, as Amanda said before, less than a popsicle.
Amanda: Hey, I can give no greater endorsement for a deal like that.
Julia: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Amanda: Right on. So thanks again to Skillshare for sponsoring us, for supporting the show, and we'll send you back now to the episode.
Melissa: Yeah. They get a bad reputation and I think a lot of people thankfully are starting to step away from the dramatization that a lot of journalists rely on when it comes to shark and step back and be like, "Wait a minute, is that actually what's going on?" So we're having a lot of advocates for sharks which is a good thing in my eyes.
Amanda: I'm really glad. And if we were to read every day like a lifestyle feature about a shark, like an article about a shark that isn't about they were doing their thing, a human got too close and was dumb or was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like what do sharks do all day? What are they about? Like what would like a cartoon shark, what would their profession be?
Julia: What would a shark sitcom look like, is what Amanda is asking.
Melissa: Well, I think it would depend on the shark 'cause some of them do have to continuously keep swimming in order to breathe. But some of them do like being lazy. So if it's like a Big Brother kind of house, one of them is going to be lazy. A lot of them are going to be swimming around. There's going to be love triangles in which someone's pregnant and it can have like three fathers of those babies.
There's a lot of eating involved, usually it's pretty messy eaters. A lot of them are party animals because they like to be up at night. And a few fights here and there, some teeth bearing, some hunching of their back maybe, defending their territories and what not. I mean, I'd be interested in watching that.
Julia: Heck yeah. It seems like a pretty legit episode of Jersey Shore.
Melissa: Honestly, I was just thinking that.
Amanda: I was just going to say, it sounds much more interesting than Jersey Shore.
Melissa: It's way more educational.
Julia: I'm glad we're all on the same page.
Amanda: Oh yeah, I know. We're all on the same page, all on the same page. Do they groom themselves? That's all we really need to be a full episode of Jersey Shore.
Melissa: No. It's funny, some because they have parasites, will actually brush up against other sharks. Like there are videos of smaller sharks using whale sharks as like a scratching post to get parasites off of them. And there are cleaning stations is well where a shark will actually swim around or will stay stationary and let animals come and pick off parasites, not only off of its sin but actually in its mouth as well.
Julia: So sweet.
Amanda: That is very cool.
Amanda: That's amazing.
Julia: I do not know a lot about sharks but I do know that the whale shark is my favorite shark because he is such a big boy. He's so big, such a big boy.
Melissa: They actually start out really, really small too, which is mind-blowing, but they're absolutely beautiful. And some really cool research just came out where, you know the spots on whale sharks?
Melissa: They're kind of like our finder prints so each has a individual marking pattern on them. And so they're using technology from NASA that is used for starts and constellations, using it for the sharks to ID them.
Julia: I just clutched my chest because that's the sweetest thing I've ever heard in my entire life.
Melissa: It's awesome. I mean, again, it's those marriages of different science branches and different study branches that we were talking about earlier. I mean, who would ever think NASA technology would be beneficial for sharks? Like when I heard that, I'm like, "Are you kidding me? This is amazing." But it makes sense. I mean, their patterns are basically constellations but in our oceans.
Amanda: Yeah. And it's almost like we're all in one interconnected universe where everything from tiny electrons to giant star systems are made of the same stuff. I mean, I don't know, it's easy to make jokes about in my head but nothing makes me feel connected and alive and transcendent than thinking about my place in the universe. Whether I'm giant compared to the bacteria that live in me or I'm a speck of nothing in the space time continuum.
Melissa: In the grand scheme of things. Well, speaking of constellations, there's actually a native tribe of people of Brazil and Guyana which actually believe the constellation Orion's Belt isn't a belt but it's actually the leg of a hunter named Nohi Abassi, which he essentially ticked off his mother-in-law. And Nohi Abassi actually trained a shark to eat her. What he didn't know was that his mother-in-law found out, disguised her daughter as the shark and instead of going after the mother-in-law, his sister-in-law essentially, went after him and sort off his leg. And that leg then became a constellation.
Julia: That's so…
Julia: That sounds like my family drama.
Melissa: Well, I keep looking at Orion's Belt now and my husband is a really big constellations guy. He's really big in astronomy. We just got a telescope and we always see Orion's belt wherever we are. And so, he's like, "Oh look Melissa, it's Orion's Belt." And I'm like, "It's a leg." And he's like, "What?" And I tell him the story and he's like, "I don't know how I feel about that."
Amanda: You're like, "Honey you know who you married, come on."
Melissa: Yeah. I was like, "Are you really surprised about this?" He's like, "No, but I don't know anyone to get ideas." And I'm like, "Uh-huh."
Amanda: Yeah. My version of that is I was at a party with my partner the other day and someone that we're friends with walked in and he said, "Oh my God, Amanda I'm so excited to see you here. I need to show you a picture." Opened up his iPhone and showed me a photo and said, "Isn't my cat a lesbian?" Just 'cause his cat looked like a lesbian in that photo. And I was like, "Yes Christian, your cat is a lesbian." And my partner looked at me like this is so unsurprising and also like so remarkable at the same time.
Julia: Oh, a side bar. I need you to send me that photo of that lesbian cat like now.
Amanda: Oh yeah. I'll let Christian know. Christian, former guest of Spirits and did a great episode on King Arthur.
Melissa: Oh, here we go.
Julia: Oh, it was that Christian. I'm upset that he didn't show me the lesbian cat now. That's upsetting.
Amanda: We were too excited talking about it. Yeah. So Melissa, can you share with us some examples of sharks in folklore and mythology?
Melissa: Yeah. Well, we've got lusca, which is a half-shark, half-octopus sea monster which-
Julia: I already love it.
Melissa: Yeah, I think-
Amanda: My son.
Melissa: ... we had a really bad Sci-Fi based on that matchup called Sharktopus.
Melissa: But anyway, so lusca has a pretty bad temper and is actually from Bahamian mythology. And lusca is said to be responsible for sinking ships or drowning swimmers, for causing whirlpools and is also apparently responsible for the blue holes and the sinkholes found along the island. And it's actually said that she will make a sinkhole whenever the residents of an island have angered her.
Amanda: Oh, I thought you were going to say when a man spanned her but same. Yes.
Melissa: Well, it's interesting 'cause actually the Bahamas back in 2011 banned shark fishing in its waters and prohibited the sale, importation and export of shark products. Maybe that made lusca happy.
Amanda: That's awesome. I mean, and also brings up an interesting side bar which is like sharks are sort of trapped in this dichotomy between a predator that no one should encounter at any cost and also like mythic being whose products are sort after to the point of being detrimental to the species.
Melissa: Well, yeah. Like how I said earlier that not all folklore and conservations measures line up very nicely. The worshiping of sharks is very common in the Melanesian islands, especially the Solomon Islands in Papua, New Guinea or PNG. And here, some cultures actually believe sharks to be the living embodiment of ancestors.
Now PNG is home to quite a few threatening sharks. And with many cultures holding sharks in such high praise, one would quickly think that the relationship between humans and the sharks here is a good one. While the trade of shark fins is actually illegal there, many still indiscriminately kill and fin sharks to help keep their families alive. They know it's illegal, they know it's not right, but that's the only way that they could get money essentially to live.
Amanda: It's not their fault, yeah.
Melissa: No, exactly. So it's definitely a very interesting relationship that has a lot of new ounces to it. I mean, it's kind of how Dean Crawford said, "No other animal elicits such fascination and fear as the shark." And that's what I'm seeing in a lot of these myths in a lot of these cultures. Is a lot of them either fear them or find them fascinating and revere them.
Amanda: Yeah. Well, both are ways to understand a thing that seems really not understandable or to other thing. Like that dichotomy is really present in other places as well. Where either it's a thing you don't want to look at or a thing that you abstract to the point of not being able to relate whatsoever.
Melissa: Yeah. And speaking of relating, there's actually two pretty notable Greek myths that involve sharks that you ladies might know. There's the myth of Lamia or Lamia, and Lamia was the daughter of the sea god Poseidon. And she actually had a fair with Zeus. When Hera, Zeus's wife-
Melissa: Of course, right? Like that's a surprise?
Julia: Never a good idea.
Melissa: When Hera, Zeus's wife found out about the affair, she actually stole and murdered Lamia's children which drove Lamia absolutely bonkers. And so to help her get revenge, Zeus actually turned her into a giant shark monster so she could devour the innocent children of Hera as revenge.
Julia: You know, so I did know that story up until the shark monster part which I think makes it about 10 times better.
Melissa: Yeah, it's interesting how different cultures paint them. For a lot of the Greek ones, I've kind of seen sharks as fearful monsters whereas more for the Polynesian islands, it's more of a respect or it was a monster but we still respect it in a healthy sort of way.
Julia: To give the Greeks a little bit of credit, they did turn basically any creature you could find into a giant monster.
Melissa: This is true.
Julia: That's just not the sharks, it's everything.
Melissa: This is true, yes. And then also for the Greeks ... So for all these names I'm pretty sure some of them I'm betraying them and someone's probably listening to this being like, "Why in the world is she saying this?" It's 'cause I've written them a thousand times but I haven't said them a thousand times.
Do you guys know the story of Akheilos?
Julia: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Melissa: Okay. So-
Amanda: I don't.
Julia: And our listeners probably don't so go right ahead.
Melissa: So Akheilos is the son of Zeus and Lamia and was a lesser known sea God because he had a shark head and a fiery fish body. And he was turned into a shark as punishment after boasting that he was more attractive than the God of beauty Aphrodite.
Julia: Just never do that. That just ...
Melissa: No, you just don't ... You just don't-
Julia: You know better.
Melissa: You just don't mess with the God's. That is the overlying arch lesson of most Greek mythology.
Julia: Especially the super petty ones like Aphrodite. I mean, come on dude.
Amanda: Yeah, just like gossip with your girlfriends when you get home and have a glass of sea wine. That's what you got to do.
Melissa: Exactly, don't actually go up to her and be like, "Don't really like how you look."
Amanda: Oh no.
Melissa: Well, speaking of morals of stories, there's actually a really interesting one in Zanzibar which is the myth of not only a shark but a monkey. And the myth of the monkey of the shark is pretty simple, it's about how a monkey living in a fruit tree and a shark became. And the monkey would help the shark eat fruit from the tree and the two would a conversation and talk. And to repay the monkey, the shark usually offered to take him on his back to his home for a really big feast.
It turns out the shark only befriended the monkey because his king was sick and he needed the monkey heart to cure him. And so, when the monkey found out the shark's goals, he actually tricked the shark into thinking he had left his heart back at the tree. So the shark took him back to the tree where the monkey climbed up and then mocked the shark for being stupid and stayed in the tree. And so, the moral of that story is apparently you're not supposed to trust monkeys or sharks.
Julia: I mean, that is a good moral, I guess.
Melissa: I think honestly the lesson from here is don't go befriending people for other reasons besides friendship, like ulterior motives.
Julia: Be upfront about your desire for your heart.
Melissa: Yeah, exactly. Like if you want someone's heart, tell 'em. I mean, those are just some examples of myths and folklore that are out there. And then of course, Hawaii, I mean, you can't go in this podcast without some from Hawaii, and Hawaiians have a very complex mythology surrounding sharks. They actually, for the most part, revered sharks and their shark gods have helped protect people in the islands.
And I mean, you've got shark gods that save ship wreck victims, that protect the inlets and islets and ensured fishermen had a bountiful catch, that they protected people from shark bites that could transform into both a human and a variety of other sea creatures to help out people. So definitely their mythology surrounding sharks is, again, for the most part, a pretty positive one.
Julia: That's ... Oh gosh. There are so many good stories. I almost want to ask if you have a favorite one. Because you've listed off so many good ones that I feel like you probably have to have a favorite, right?
Melissa: Yeah. You know ...
Amanda: Or the most shocking.
Melissa: I think my favorite has to be the Fijian shark god just because that was kind of my entry way to everything. I mean, the cool thing about Dakuwaqa is actually that it's known in a lot of different islands as something else. In the Cook islands, it's known as Avatea and was also the god of the sun and the moon. In Tanga, he was known as Takuwaku or Takuwaka and was a warrior god that would protect people from other vicious gods.
I think just because it was my entry way shark myth into everything else, it has to be my favorite. It has a very special place in my heart, that's for sure.
Amanda: And to me, this is such a great example of how understanding a thing is so much more interesting than vilifying it. We know what a villain is. You can only have so many interesting plot twists about a character that you end up needing to hate as part of a narrative. And understanding them further, digging in, trying to understand why our assumptions are what they are, it's always the more interesting for us.
Melissa: Yeah. And I feel like kind of this way ... One of my other passions when it comes to studying sharks is habitat use. So answering why a shark is where it is, I think that and kind of the behavioral aspect of these animals, why it interests me so much is actually ... Do you guys remember the show, The Wild Thornberrys cartoon?
Julia: Yes, of course.
Amanda: Hell yeah.
Melissa: So I'm pretty Eliza Thornberry was the one who got me interested in marine biology as a career or just biology in general 'cause I was so envious of her ability to communicate with animals. Like I wanted that superpower. I wanted to ask the animals where they went, why they did what they did and to let them know that I was trying to help them. And when I was in undergrad, I actually would watch the shows in the background as I was studying for my tests and I realized that they never did an episode really with sharks where they painted them as a good guy or a girl.
And it was really interesting to me why even that ... I mean, they even had the other animals that are also painted as villains like lions, they talked about what they were facing, they got to talk about the threats they were facing. And in the end, the lion was painted as a good person or a good animal. They never had that with sharks and I kind of wish that if anyone could ever have a superpower that mine would be to have that ability to communicate with animals to get to know these animals in a deeper level.
And I guess, I hope at the end of all of this research that I'm doing, I get to understand not only the factors that influence the diversity of public interests and attitudes, but also how the portrayal of sharks has evolved over the years. And who knows, maybe through this work we can evaluate the effectiveness of residential, environmental education programs and look at the role of wildlife ecotourism and what it plays in regards to the longterm coexisting with wildlife mindset.
I think by being able to study the personal and intimate relationships people have with the ocean, maybe we can predict how people's attitudes will influence these conservation policies and vice versa. And from there, we can have more effective management and planning in the future which means better protected sharks.
Amanda: For sure.
Julia: Yeah, for sure. That is so awesome. I'm so glad we had you on. Like genuinely, I learned so much.
Melissa: Thank you. I mean, it's really interesting stuff.
Amanda: I am so struck by your obvious passion and compassion and understanding and freaking wicked intelligence. And I'm so glad that you are, in part, dedicating your career to helping people who are not biologists understand how freaking amazing the ocean, and sharks in particular, are.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, it's a really important ecosystem. I mean, we're called the blue planet for a reason. And these animals are an important part of that very important ecosystem. It's just doing my part to make sure that we not only highlight and shine a spotlight on the diversity of sharks and how we go about forming our opinions of them, but also the diversity of scientists that are studying them.
I actually am the founder of The Fins United Initiative and that's a program that looks at diverse and their relatives. But also highlights this different science that is going on around the world to study these animals. And we have a series called Behind the Fins which we actually go around the world interviewing scientists, conservationists. We're actually now expanding to include wildlife artists, photographers, videographers, conser ... whatever. A very broad spectrum.
Basically if you worked with these animals in some capacity, we're reaching out to hear your story. Because I think it's really important to know what kind of research is going on, why it's beneficial. And again, see that diversity in scientists, break that stereotype of what a scientist 'looks like.'
Amanda: Absolutely. Ah, amazing. Well, listen, we will be a platform for you and your colleagues any time you want, just to hit us up. We are here to listen and hopefully bring a few new listeners or followers to your course.
Melissa: Thank you. And again, thank you guys so much for having me on. It was such a different kind of podcast to be a part of, but I absolutely love it because there's nothing else like it out there.
Julia: Aw, thank you.
Amanda: Thank you. It's a very weird intersection of our, Julia's and mine particular, loves. And I think the more people are able to just showcase exactly and authentically who they are, what they care about, a niche that they feel like only they represent. Whether it's a Latino marine biologist or a person who is super obsessed with death gods from cultures that you're not a part of. Like there's a place for you and there's a community around you. And being able to find someone else who's like, "Oh my god, I thought it was just me." That is just the driving force.
Julia: Melissa, do you want to plug any of your stuff, where people can find you on the internet? I know you did at the beginning but it's always good to do it again at the end.
Melissa: Yeah. You can find me on Twitter @mcmsharksxx. I also have a website which is just my full name, melissacristinamarquez.weebly.com and I'll send you guys all this information too if you want to put it in the show notes.
Melissa: The Fins United Initiative has a Facebook, a website, an Instagram. And ConCiencia Azul also has a Facebook, a website and ... That's it for it right now. I'm slowly dabbling into getting a Twitter handle as well, but I just started with a Fins United Twitter handle so I'm like alright, two Twitter handles is good for right now.
Amanda: Oh, we feel that.
Julia: That's enough.
Amanda: Yeah, we definitely do.
Melissa: So yeah. I'll definitely send you guys all that information. And then of course the TED talk, if people want to check that out. And I guess, hint hint, keep an eye out for a special weeks all about sharks this summer 'cause you might see a familiar face.
Amanda: Hell yeah. Oh my god, it's like the most famous person we've ever talked to.
Julia: Alright, well, thank you so much Melissa. And remember, to our listeners, to stay creepy.
Amanda: Stay cool and just keep swimming.
Amanda: Spirits was created by Amanda McLoughlin, Julia Schifini, and Eric Schneider, with music by Kevin MacLeod and visual design by Allyson Wakeman.
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Julia: Thank you so much for listening. Til next time.