If the fear of sharks keeps you from enjoying the ocean, you’re not alone. It's a fear shared by millions — instilled into the public consciousness with the 1975 release of the movie Jaws, and perpetuated by films like Open Water and The Shallows ever since.
However, it is also a fear that is largely unfounded. Shark-related incidents are rare — in 2016, the International Shark Attack File shows that there were 81 unprovoked attacks worldwide, of which only four were fatal. The reality is that sharks are not the mindless killers they are so often portrayed to be. Instead, they are supremely evolved animals with seven different senses and skeletons made entirely of cartilage. Some sharks can accurately navigate across oceans, while others are capable of reproducing without having sex.
Above all, sharks fulfil a vital role as apex predators. They are responsible for maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem — and without them, the planet’s reefs would soon become barren. Here's why sharks should be respected and conserved, rather than feared.
The Vast Majority of Sharks Are Harmless
For most people, the word “shark” conjures up mental images of thrashing great whites, their open jaws lined with serrated teeth and smeared with blood. In reality, there are more than 400 different shark species, ranging from the dwarf lantern shark (a species smaller than the human hand), to the whale shark, an ocean giant that can grow to over 40 feet/ 12 meters in length. The majority of shark species are considered harmless. In fact, most are smaller than humans and instinctively avoid contact with them.
Three of the largest shark species (the whale shark, the basking shark and the megamouth shark) are filter-feeders, and live on a diet made up predominantly of plankton. Only a handful of species have been implicated in shark-related incidents, and of these, only three are routinely considered dangerous to humans. These are the great white, the bull shark and the tiger shark. All three are large, predatory and occur globally in areas shared by human water-users, increasing the likelihood of an encounter.
However, in countries like Fiji and South Africa, tourists dive safely with these species every day, often without the protection of a cage.
Humans Are Not Natural Shark Food
Sharks have been around for between 400 and 450 million years. In that time, different species have evolved to hunt specific prey, and not one of them is conditioned to react to humans as a source of food. Sharks typically avoid attacking animals larger than themselves, as the risk of injury is too great. For most species, this means that humans are automatically off the menu. Research shows that even larger sharks like great whites and bull sharks do not intentionally hunt people for food. Instead, they favor prey with a high fat content, like seals or tuna.
Some scientists believe that attacks are a case of mistaken identity. Great whites, tiger sharks and bull sharks all hunt from below, and may confuse the silhouette of a person on the surface for that of a seal or turtle (particularly if the person is lying on a surfboard). Other scientists disregard this theory, arguing that sharks are too intelligent to confuse people for prey. After all, sharks have an amazingly well developed sense of smell, and humans smell nothing like seals.
Instead, it’s likely that most attacks are simply the result of curiosity. Sharks don’t have hands — when they want to investigate an unknown object, they use their teeth. This theory is supported by the fact that very few shark attack victims are eaten. Instead, most people are bitten once, before the shark loses interest and swims away. Unfortunately, injuries are often so severe that the victim dies from trauma and loss of blood before they can receive adequate medical attention.
Sharks Are the Least of Your Worries
An article published by the International Shark Attack File calculates that humans have a one in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a shark. Your trip to the beach is 132 times more likely to end in death by drowning, and 290 times more likely to result in a fatal boat accident. Next time you balk at stepping into the sea, consider that you’re also 1,000 times more likely to die whilst cycling. Odd items considered more dangerous than sharks include coconuts, vending machines and toilets.
Of course, people are the most dangerous animals of all. Murder aside, between 1984 and 1987, 6,339 people reported being bitten by another human in New York City. In comparison, across the entire United States, only 45 people were injured (not killed) by sharks in the same period of time. So, if you currently reside in New York, you have more to fear from your fellow subway-riders than you do from a dip in the sea.
Minimizing the Risk of Attack Is Easy
If you’re still nervous, consider that there are several easy steps you can take to minimize the risk of shark attack. The first is to stay out of the water at dawn and dusk, which is when most large shark species hunt. The second is to take off any shiny jewellery, as the glint of silver and gold can easily be mistaken for the shimmering scales of a prey fish. There’s also a theory that the color yellow attracts sharks.
In reality, it’s more likely that a shark’s curiosity may be piqued by the contrast of the lighter shade against the dark blue of the sea. As such, if you plan on spending a lot of time in the water, it’s a good idea to avoid pale colors when picking out fins or bathing suits — and to cover up pale skin with a wetsuit, gloves or booties. How you spend your time in the water is also a factor. Because sharks hunt from below, surfers and surface swimmers are more at risk than scuba divers.
Spearfishermen need to be particularly careful, as sharks are inevitably drawn by the scent and movement of dying fish. Sharks can pick up vibrations in the water, and may be attracted by splashing on the surface. Consequently, if you’re diving with sharks, making as little commotion as possible when entering and exiting the water is advised. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that sharks are attracted by the scent of menstrual blood or human urine.
Sharks Have More to Fear From People
It is estimated that 90% of the world’s sharks have disappeared from our oceans in the last 100 years. This is a direct result of human activity, including climate change, habitat loss and most importantly, overfishing. Every year, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks — an average of 11,417 every hour. The majority of these are destined for markets across Asia, where shark fin soup is valued as a delicacy and a sign of wealth.
Shark finning is an infinitely cruel practice, with many sharks finned at sea and tossed back into the ocean to drown. Because fins account for less than 5% of an average shark’s body weight, it is also incredibly wasteful.
In some countries, like South Africa and Australia, sharks are purposefully culled to reduce the likelihood of human attacks. Often, the methods used to target so-called killer sharks are indiscriminate, killing harmless shark species and other animals including whales, dolphins and turtles. Sharks are also the victim of accidental by-catch.
Perhaps most worryingly, all marine species are threatened by the combination of pollution and current fishing trends. Together, these two factors are forecasted to see more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
The Bottom Line
Rather than fearing an outdated Hollywood stereotype, consider finding out the truth about sharks for yourself. There are plenty of places all over the world that offer safe encounters with sharks in their natural habitat. Whether you choose to swim with reef sharks in the Bahamas, or go cage-diving with great whites in South Africa or Mexico, seeing them firsthand is the only way to truly appreciate the beauty and grace of the world’s most maligned predator.
Ultimately, if you’re still afraid of sharks, remember that avoiding an attack is as easy as staying out of the sea. On the other hand, more than a quarter of shark and ray species are already threatened with extinction - for them, there is nowhere left to hide.