Sharks: Why are we afraid?

August 18, 2008
Why are people really afraid of sharks? Are they really more dangerous than some of the other animals on this planet? “Shark attacks often dominate the news in the summer. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television news, and talk shows keep count of the incidents of supposed carnage.” Just the fact that we hear so much about shark attacks makes us terrified of them. Maybe if we learned more about them and how they don’t pose as much as a threat as we think they do, people wouldn’t be as afraid. Peter Benchley, a shark expert says, “They don’t want to hurt you or eat you. In fact, sharks would like nothing better than to be left alone to do what nature has programmed them to do: swim, eat, and make little sharks.”

All sharks follow specific patterns of unprovoked attacks on humans. One type is the sneak-attack, where the shark strikes without warning. In this case the shark may bite the person more than once. A second kind of strike is called “bump-and-bite.” Using this technique, the shark normally circles the prey and bumps into it. It circles the person over and over before coming back to bite it. The third, and most common, type of attack is called the “hit-and-run” attack. Here, the shark spots its human prey in the water and mistakes it for a fish. It bites or slashes its victim just once (Gaines 7). Seeing that the human is not its typical prey, the shark swims away. In the “hit-and-run” attack, the victim is bitten but normally survives (Landau 24-27).

Almost any type of shark could attack a human swimmer or scuba diver. In fact there are close to 400 species of sharks (Gaines 15). Historical records have listed only about ten types of sharks that attack. However, the three types of sharks most frequently involved in attacks on humans are the Great white shark, the Bull shark, and the Tiger shark (Landau 21).

Great white sharks are considered to be the most dangerous type of sharks. They have “killed more humans than any other shark. During the 1990’s, six in 10 shark attack deaths were caused by great whites.” Attacks by Great white sharks are especially disturbing, with some victims being bitten completely in half. They can grow up to 21 feet long and weigh between 1,500 and 4,000 pounds (Gaines 16-17). Great whites, like all sharks, are carnivores with about 3,000 razor-sharp teeth, which are often “compared to steak knives.” They usually eat large prey such as seals, but if a human happens to cross its path, it would not be that swimmer’s lucky day (Healy 24-25). “Great whites can tell in the microsecond of a first bite whether their potential prey has enough calories to be worth the effort. That is, if the prey won’t deliver as much energy as the shark will use up in attacking and eating it, the shark breaks off the attack after a single bite. Depending on how serious that first bite is, the prey may or may not live to tell about it.” (Benchley 51-52). It is interesting to note that a Great white shark is not all white; only its belly is. The top of a Great White shark is blue-grey to blend with the sea (Landau 22). The lifespan of a Great White is about 40 years.

Some experts disagree that the Great white shark is the most dangerous shark of all. The Bull shark, at approximately ten feet long, is also quite dangerous, fierce and quick to attack. They have broad, triangular teeth with rough edges like a saw blade. It was to blame for at least two attacks in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. One attack occurred in waist-deep water, since Bull sharks commonly lurk in shallow water along coastlines. With broad, triangular teeth, the Bull shark can easily rip up its prey including large fish, seabirds, seals, and walruses (Gaines 16). “Most fish thrive in salt water or freshwater. Bull sharks have the unusual ability to live in both.” It is interesting that Bull sharks can travel upstream to rivers and lakes into fresh water. In 1916, five people were attacked and four died in a Bull shark attack fifteen miles from the open ocean (Healy 22-23).

Tiger sharks, named for their unique markings, are also skilled hunters. “They hunt in packs and often tear prey apart in a group effort.” It is interesting to note that Tiger sharks lose their grey-brown color and stripes as they grow older. Tiger sharks typically grow to about ten feet long. However, some have grown twice that large. Their jagged-edged teeth are curved and very sharp, making them ferocious hunters (Landau 22-23). Tiger sharks “bear many more young than great whites (though sometimes the greedy young quickly eat each other). And they’re everywhere. While great whites, as a rule, hang around coastal waters, tiger sharks are completely free-roaming. They’re fond of coastal waters, and they like to enter lagoons at night and hunt in the shallows for prey that often includes smaller sharks. They also roam the deep.” (Benchley 54). It is in the shallow lagoons where they often run into humans, and in the murky water, often mistake them for fish. Bethany Hamilton, a surfer from Hawaii, had her left arm torn off by a Tiger shark, but that “doesn’t stop Bethany Hamilton from surfing.” (Healy 20-21).

In Shark Life, Peter Benchley describes how sharks do not pose a large threat to humans, saying:

There are a great many sharks, and a great many kinds of

sharks, in the sea. Very few -- a tiny, insignificant number

-- will ever have with a human being, let alone bother

one… let alone eat one. As a general rule, being attacked

by a shark is not something you should worry about --

unless you’re a person who worries about being struck by

lightening or attacked by killer bees, both of with are more

likely to happen to you than a shark attack. (44)

Many people decide they are afraid of sharks without knowing the statistics. “In reality, millions of people swim or dive in the ocean without being harmed.” “In a period of one hundred years -- from 1900 to 2000 -- there were a total of only about fifteen hundred unprovoked attacks recorded worldwide. That is an average of fifteen attacks per year.” The average amount of attacks has been rising due to people entering shark territory more and more often. (See chart.) (Gaines 9). The truth is, sharks attacks are only one small contributor to how some people get killed or wounded. Not many people know that you are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a shark (Landau 42). Also, people don’t realize that insects kill more humans each day than sharks do in a year, or that harmful dog bites are much more common than shark bites (Healy 28). This shows that sharks aren’t necessarily the monsters we make them out to be.

“Of all the shark statistics, one that is almost totally ignored by the media and the public is the most horrible of all: for every human being killed by a shark, roughly ten million sharks are killed by humans. Sometimes they’re killed for their skins and their meat. But mostly they’re killed for their fins, which are made into soup that is sold for as much as a hundred dollars a bowl all over the world. Shark fin soup is regarded as a delicacy in China and other Asian nations.” (Benchley 3). “The real story is not shark bites man. It’s man bites shark.” (Landau 41).

Sharks can be dangerous to humans, but they are also beneficial to the food chain. The feeding habits of sharks keep the oceans clear of weak and old animals, therefore keeping the ocean healthy and clean (Healy 28). “If random, destructive fishing was permitted to continue, someday there would be no oceans. Instead, there would be a catastrophic collapse of marine life, and along with that would surely come a human catastrophe.” (Benchley 125).

“Since the first human ventured onto the sea thousands of years ago, sharks have always been perceived as dangerous, sometimes even evil. So there hasn’t been much pressure on governments to spend money to study them. Most people that the best way to deal with sharks is to stay away from them. Some even believe that the only good shark is a dead shark, a belief that springs from a combination of fear and ignorance.” In recent years, sharks have been so heavily over-fished that some species may never recover, and are close to extinction (Benchley 115). We need to remember that the ocean is their home, not ours, and that we are just visitors to their habitat. We must treat with them with respect if we want to share their ocean with them (Healy 28).

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