Since I first watched Jaws as a cowering ten year-old, I’ve always had a strange fascination with sharks. I loved Jaws – I still do 15-odd views later – but it’s always seriously coloured my view of the sea. That’s true of a lot of people, but I’ve had it particularly bad. Even on the English shoreline, where you’re unlikely to encounter anything more deadly than a disorientated whiting, I see an ocean teeming with psychotic cacharodon carcharias wanting to do me in the eyeball like old Ben Gardner.
So why am I about to get in the water with a whole bunch of sharks at Chester’s Blue Planet Aquarium? Good question. Because Jaws was coming out in full 1080p glory? Because I’m an eejit? When Psycho comes out on Blu-ray I’m not planning on spending a night in a motel run by a knife-wielding lunatic with mummy issues. I once survived a viperwolf attack on an Avatar soundstage, but that was motion-captured so it doesn’t really count. (And I wasn’t completely unscathed – my dignity was dragged off and used to feed the baby viperwolves.)
The good news is that no-one has yet been eaten by a 10ft sand tiger in an aquarium. According to my diving instructor, this species is “docile”. Shark docile, but docile. I know that in the pecking order sand tigers come in far below Great Whites (“swallow you whole”), tiger sharks (“eat anything”), bull sharks, makos and hammerheads in terms of aggression, but it’s cold comfort when I watch them rip a huge fish to shreds before we clamber down the ladder and into the tank.
In the water and in a wetsuit, we’re told to make like Hooper and stay still on the aquarium floor, keeping our hands away from the big fish. I probably didn’t need to be told the last bit. The sharks look ENORMOUS from down here. As one of them drifts past a couple of feet from my head giving me the Joe Pescis, I'm reminded that this is the only animal that will literally eat you with its eyes closed. Beat that, Essex Lion.
Seeing sharks up close (as in, really, really close), it’s hard not to feel even more in awe of them. They’re not as mysterious in Cheshire as they are in, say, Cape of Good Hope or the Great Australian Bight, but they’re no less amazing. I know Jaws writer Peter Benchley used to agonise about how his story changed people’s attitudes towards sharks and somehow turned wonder to terror. He must have been truly exasperated by the time he felt the need to point out that he’d “never been hurt by a sea creature, except for jellyfish and sea urchin”, but I hope he was wrong to fret. After all, it's only a movie. Now, Sea Urchin: The Revenge, that would be scary...