By Amanda Decker
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A light grey rectangular fin sticks its head above the ocean’s surface. A beach swimmer turns mid-stroke and sees the obtrusion, but it’s too late, the fin is only five feet away and the swimmer is taken beneath the waters before he can even react… This scenario is the fear of many ocean goers. It is also the image many people conjure up when sharks are mentioned. Only problem is — it’s not realistic.
The world is peopled with individuals who harbor “unrealistic” fears. Phobias that make them hold onto irrational imagery regarding one thing or another. Some fear spiders, some fear the night, some even fear the number thirteen, and some fear… sharks. Yet this unrealistic fear of sharks as seen on a mass level is not considered a phobia — at least not by the general public. It is just considered a normal viewpoint. But given the record of shark attacks in the last century, just how realistic is this view? Are sharks really the bloodthirsty human devourers many see them to be? Or are they more a product of our “monster imaginations?”
The monster myth is a very strong one in western culture — a threatening, scary deviation from the norm, something that could step into our safe worlds and tear us apart. Consider the appearance of a shark — eyes that can only be described as soulless, sitting atop sharp, ragged teeth. They are undoubtedly imposing, frightening looking creatures. They are “monster-like” fish, and maybe that’s all we need to fear them, but there is more. There have been, of course, real documented accounts of sharks going after humans — a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise as of late. But to what extent are these real base fears played upon and distorted to bigger proportions by the power of film, media, and simple age-old myth?
In fact, shark fears have been around for centuries, one early account goes thus — in 1776, a sailor described the Great White Shark:
“They reach very great dimensions. There is a report of a whole human corpse being found in the stomach of one of these monsters, which is by no means beyond belief considering their huge fondness for human flesh. They are the nightmare of seamen in all the hot climates, where they constantly follow ships waiting for anything that might fall overboard. A man who has this misfortune inexorably perishes. They have been seen to rush at him like a gudgeon at a worm…”
Definitely a great tale to tell by the camp fire, but in terms of scientifically observable figures, what do the numbers have to say about this? Well on average, there are roughly 65 reported shark attacks every year, but only a small fraction of these prove to be fatal. The odds of getting attacked by a shark are one in 11.5 million, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File. You are more likely to be killed by a dog, snake, or in a car collision with a deer. You’re also 30 times more likely to be killed by lightning and three times more likely to drown at the beach than die from a shark attack, according to ISAF. From 1990 to 2006, 16 people died by digging until the sand collapsed and smothered them. ISAF counted a dozen U.S. shark deaths in the same period. Clearly, you’d be safer in the water with the sharks.
So why then do many people have such a strong fear of sharks? Well, one usual suspect stands out here — the media. It has long been recognized that sensational, gory stories sell newspapers and what can get more gory and sensational than a wild, vicious-looking animal attacking an innocent human being? Popular media doesn’t report on every dog attack, nor does it spend much effort covering stories about sharks that focuses on their benefits even though they play a critical role in our aquatic ecosystem and have evolved into a tight inter-dependency with their environment. They tend to eat very efficiently, going after the old, sick, or slower fish in a population that they prey upon, keeping that population healthier. Sharks groom many populations of marine life to the right size so that those preyed upon species don’t cause harm to the ecosystem by becoming too populous. Sharks are among Earth’s oldest life-forms, having emerged between 455 and 420 million years ago. They are amazingly adaptable prehistoric creatures who have inhabited this Earth since the times of the dinosaurs.
Film has also had its impact on the psyches of the masses. Films such as the legendary Jaws and the disturbing Open Water have helped to uphold the negative, scary, man-eating monster shark image. Jaws perfectly illustrated a latent fear of the public to be encountered by a wild, hungry beast while enjoying a quiet, peaceful day at the beach. In the past, it has been theorized that the use of a shark in his film was emblematic of the public’s fears of foreign invasion during the Vietnam War. It is also interesting to note that the author of the novel Jaws, Peter Benchley, became a shark conservationist later in his life to try and make up for the role he had in promulgating the shark’s negative image in the eyes of the public.
So what do we really have to fear from sharks…? One view that may be hard to popularize but holds truth is that sharks are sleek, elegant predators…highly evolved, and at the apex of the marine food chain. Sharks don’t target people deliberately, and are not ruthless or malicious. They kill to survive, just like we do. Despite the horror of a shark attack, the reality is that humans are much more of a threat to sharks than they are to us.