My lifelong interest in sharks was reignited with Discovery Channel's recent annual airing of Shark Week. Even more recently, I heard a tourist was killed by a shark off the coast of Maui. This got me to thinking about the many misunderstandings people have regarding sharks, the ocean's apex predator.
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool ocean lover. If it's in or on the ocean, that's where I want to be. I'm also avidly attracted to marine biology, an interest I've honed through work as a volunteer educator at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and paid educator at Orlando's Sea World. In my capacity as an educator, I've learned a few key things about sharks.
Your fear of sharks is greatly out of proportion to their actual threat to you.
The number of shark attacks on humans per year is insanely low. According to The International Shark Attack File, there were 80 cases of unprovoked shark attacks in 2012. Of these 80 attacks, seven were fatal. These numbers are fairly standard with slight variations annually.
I think I know what you're thinking. Knowing something won't harm you and not being afraid of it are two different things. My fear of spiders is greatly out of proportion to their actual threat to me, but that doesn't stop me from running out of a room when I see one. Similarly, if I saw a shark while I was in the ocean, I would be afraid. But armed with the knowledge that sharks don't pose a huge threat to me, I probably wouldn't be totally paralyzed with fear.
What would I do if I saw a shark?
1. I would calmly swim to shore or the nearest boat. Why calmly? Sharks are attracted to splashing and other erratic movements because when fish or marine mammals are injured they splash and thrash about.
2. I would go out of my way to avoid provoking a shark. Some of the things that provoke sharks are blood in the water, feeding sharks by hand, trying to grab a shark, and spearfishing in the vicinity of a shark. I don't think you need me to tell you that it isn't a good idea to do these things.
3. I would avoid being in the ocean when the water is murky and at night. The reason for this is that many sharks prefer to hunt when they can't be easily seen. This seems like common sense to me. Also, sometimes shark attacks are due to mistaken identity. For example, a wetsuit makes us all look more like seals.
4. If I ever find myself in the vicinity of an aggressive shark, I will try to make myself look bigger and more aggressive. If the shark is within arms' length I will punch it -- repeatedly, if necessary -- in the snout and/or eye. Why? Sharks are like any predator. They don't want to risk being hurt or killed by something more deadly than they are.
What kinds of sharks are responsible for most unprovoked shark attacks? Out of the approximately 400 different species of sharks, only three are considered serious threats to humans. They are:
- Great white sharks
- Tiger sharks
- Bull sharks
Great White Sharks -- Great whites are big! And fast! And aggressive! Especially if you are a seal. Lucky for you, you aren't a seal. Great white sharks apparently don't find humans tasty, so attacks on humans aren't for feeding purposes. The bad news is that because of the strength and size of this shark, it doesn't need to eat you for you to die. A bite can sometimes be enough.
Tiger Sharks - Tiger sharks are also big. Unlike great white sharks, however, they apparently enjoy a good human once in awhile. In fact, tiger sharks will eat anything. This is why tiger sharks are often thought of as the scavengers of the shark family. Some of the inorganic things pulled out of their stomachs include license plates, gas tanks, and old tires. Yummy.
Bull Sharks - Bull sharks are responsible for the majority of unprovoked attacks on humans because we live in close proximity to bull sharks. Luckily, bull sharks are medium-sized sharks. Unluckily, they are aggressive and swim close to shore in tropical waters. Bull sharks can also survive in fresh water and have been known to swim far inland up rivers and tributaries.
Why I love sharks.
Now that I've probably scared you out of the ocean, let me tell you why I love sharks and why you shouldn't be afraid to enjoy the water.
First, there is the extremely low statistical probability of attack. This in itself should be enough.
Additionally, sharks are beautiful and amazing creatures. A few interesting shark facts are:
• The biggest fish in the world is the whale shark: a species that is completely harmless to humans and survives on tiny plankton.
• Stingrays, skates, dogfish, guitarfish and sawfish are members of the shark family.
• Sharks don't have bones. Anything that feels bone-like on a shark (spine, jaws) is actually cartilage. Cartilage is similar in structure to the tips of our noses.
• Today's sharks have changed very little since dinosaur times.
• Shark skin feels like sandpaper and can even been used as sandpaper.
• Sharks have multiple rows of teeth and lose their teeth constantly. You never have to worry about a toothless shark though because their teeth keep growing back.
On a more personal note, last September I took a kayak/snorkel tour off La Jolla Shores beach in California. Leopard sharks like warm, shallow water, so between late June and early December they are generally easy to spot right off the beach due to the sandy ocean floor there. You can wade, snorkel or kayak to see them. Although leopard sharks have sharp sets of teeth, I wasn't the least bit frightened. Instead I was enchanted with the sharks' grace and beauty in their natural environment. It was a memorable experience that I'll never forget and hope to do again one day.
A shark experience on my bucket list is to swim with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. Knowing how much I enjoyed my leopard shark adventure, I'm sure swimming with whale sharks will be a life-enhancing experience that I'll treasure forever.
The next time you're at the ocean, I hope you'll enjoy all it has to offer you too.