Shark attack: menace or myth?

1. Shark repellent

2. How dangerous?

3. Shark lovers

4. A social killer?

5.Hammerhead's head

1975: About a minute after this diver entered the water in Santa Barbara County, Cal., a five- to six-meter white shark arose from directly below, striking so hard that diver and shark rose a meter or two out of the water. The shark released the man at the height of its breach, and he he was immediately pulled aboard the boat. Courtesy Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century Scientia Publishing, LLC.

Deaths from natural hazards show that most things are more dangerous than sharks.

Are vending machines more dangerous than sharks? The statistics seem to say so.

A deadly danger?
We're not saying sharks aren't dramatically effective predators. White sharks can kill mammals as big as an elephant seal (How big is that? Think a submarine SUV).

Man's leg battered and bruised with large puncture wounds.We're not underestimating the fear of attack.

We remember a series of attacks in Florida in 2001. We remember the surfer-girl from Hawaii who lost her arm to a tiger shark in October, 2003.

But how common are shark attacks and killings? Not very.

Globally, the International Shark Attack File recorded 55 unprovoked attacks in 2003, and four confirmed deaths, in California, Australia, Fiji and South Africa.

Samuel Gruber, a veteran University of Miami shark researcher who serves as an unpaid consultant for Shark Defense, which is testing a new shark repellent, says, "Shark attacks are a very rare, untoward thing. Every way you could think about dying, it would be more prevalent than a shark attack. More people are killed by Coke machines falling over."

We're not positive about soda machines -- the statistics are murky -- but you are a whale of a lot less likely to become shark-bait than to be killed or injured by lightning.

Graph shows drop in death by shark attack and other causes.

The global picture is echoed on the Pacific Coast of North America, where 107 confirmed, unprovoked attacks occurred between 1950 and 1999.

In fairness, sharks only attack people who go in salt water. But then, soda machines only attack people who try to rip them off.

Big market?
With shark attacks so vanishingly rare, it's hard to imagine swimmers slathering on repellent at the beach. Divers might be more interested, especially where sharks have recently appeared. "I'm not sure there's a need for a repellent to protect humans," says Gruber.

Warning sign of stick figure rocking vending machine. Ironically, repellents might be more useful for protecting sharks from people than people from sharks. Millions of sharks die every year on hooks set for more merchantable predators, like tuna or swordfish. "In the Florida swordfishery, a decade or so ago, for every swordfish, maybe four sharks were killed and discarded," says Gruber, who helped start the American Elasmobranch Society to foster the study of fish with cartilage skeletons.

Bycatch, the killing of non-target fish, returns us to the idea that the new shark repellent might scare sharks from baited hooks or costly underwater equipment -- like sonar gadgetry dragged behind American submarines. Mike Herrmann of Shark Defense confirmed that "the primary goal is not a human-use repellent; it's primarily for protecting underwater equipment. And we would like to see if it could reduce bycatch."

Fear: Explained
If shark attacks are so phenomenally rare, why is the fear of sharks so often exploited by movies like Jaws and Open Water? The Jaws paradigm is "just a fantasy, an exaggerated, biased look at what a natural predator can do," says Ramón Bonfil, who heads shark conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "It's like claiming that tigers are bloodthirsty. Sharks are predators, they are going to hunt for food. In many cases, we might be bona fide prey for some sharks."

At the extreme, fear becomes phobia. To dive deeper into the ancient psyche, we brushed a dorsal fin against Mia Biran, an associate professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio who is, how shall we put it, a phobo-phile? Via email, Biran told us, "Like many other phobias, the fear [of sharks] may represent some archaic memories of human beings, when they had little defense against certain animals and natural disasters."

Shark slices through quiet, blue water.
Caribbean reef shark. Courtesy Grant Johnson, Bimini Biological Field Station

Biran suggests shark-o-phobia may be rooted in "the symbolic meaning of a shark attack for some people: It is a sneaky creature, it attacks without warning, it is rather large, and its attack is deadly or inflicts bloody amputations." These attributes, she suggests, might be especially powerful in "people who have worries about bodily integrity, who had some medical interventions early in childhood."

But Gruber, an avowed shark-o-phile, reminds us that sharks are not universally feared. "They are called lords of the sea by the Melanesians and especially the Polynesians, who revere and worship sharks."

Why do some people love sharks?

The Why Files (home)

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