Many people will not have had any real-life contact with marine creatures like dolphins, whales, and sharks, other than via the media, despite the increase in marine-fauna tourism, a University of Canterbury researcher said.
Because there was less chance for real-life encounters with these species, the way they were represented had more of an influence over public perceptions, UC masters student researcher Jess Stewart said.
Some animals were seen to be worthy of more care, protection and affection than others. This impacted on whether they were raised to end up as food on dinner plates, bred as pets, or seen as pests, exotic species or as tourist attractions. Jess has begun researching the value, the perception and future of dolphins, whales and sharks.
"The oceans are home to around 295,000-321,000 different animal species. They house 80 percent of all life on earth and produce over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe.
"My research has been on three of the ocean's most well-known residents: dolphins, whales, and sharks. Additionally, they're also iconic and have featured in some of popular culture's most well-known media texts: Flipper (1964), Moby Dick (1851) and Jaws (1975).
"I see dolphins as the 'smiling smarties'. They are without a doubt among the most popular of all animals and I've yet to meet someone who dislikes dolphins.
"The soft-spot many have for dolphins is linked with their sophisticated intelligence. Some even believe dolphins may be more intelligent than every other species on the planet.''
Jess said whales, or 'blubbery buddies', were also viewed positively, and often seen as the peaceful giants and guardians of the seas. She said the thought of eating whale meat was almost unthinkable.
The 'save the whale' movement in the 1970s gave whales a complete public image makeover and provoked a major cultural attitude shift from an 'indifference' to a 'love' of whales.
Whale-watching had replaced whaling as an industry in many former-whaling nations, such as New Zealand.
"Finally, sharks, the toothy terrors, are the most vilified of all oceanic residents. Their reputation as killing-machines is largely unjustified, considering that out of around 415 different species of sharks, the vast majority are smaller than 2 meters, and have no interest in going near divers.
"While it's true that some species may be more dangerous than others, most species have never been known to bite or kill a human. Although Jaws was great for Steven Spielberg's career, it was detrimental to sharks, provoking some to kill sharks out of a kind of 'hatred' of them
"Fortunately for sharks, there's a 'softening' in public perception of them and sharks need protecting from people. This is largely thanks to a greater understanding of the role of sharks as apex-predators, and the impact the decimation of their populations through overfishing would have on the oceanic ecosystem.
"Shark-related tourism has also increased, including swimming with sharks, even free diving with great whites, which would almost have been unthinkable shortly after the release of Jaws.''
Jess said the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, for their meat, the killing of whales in the Antarctic, and the killing of sharks for their fins have been brought to public attention.
Three films in particular focus on these issues The Cove (2009), the Whale Wars television series (2008) and Sharkwater (2007). These films seek to politicize the slaughter of dolphins, whales and of sharks for their fins for food.
"My research will look at the different meanings that are assigned to dolphins, whales and sharks resulting in cross-cultural conflict.''