You know the music, that abrupt cello and haunting clarinet. It conjures images of a monster waiting in the deep. It’s the musical theme from the film Jaws. This movie has been responsible for a good portion of the shark craze that has gripped people for decades now. Based on a string of shark attacks in the United States in 1916, Jaws was originally a novel written by Peter Benchley. Released in 1974, Jaws was in instant hit, and the film of the same name was released the following year. Jaws quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time, showing that the subject of sharks was one that piqued the interest of many people across the world. Why, though, do humans seems to have an obsession with the shark?
Jaws may have been the worst thing to ever happen to the shark. It was a genuine public relations nightmare for a fish that we knew very little about at the time. People love a good monster, and the shark in Jaws is certainly portrayed as such. However, sharks, unlike zombies or vampires, really do exist. But the reality of the shark and the depiction of the shark have seen a significant gap remain between them. Just Google a photo of the Sand tiger shark and see if you feel like going swimming. It’s human nature to fear something that can kill you, but the reputation of sharks has been distorted to the point where mythology seems to outweigh fact.
According to WildlifeMuseum.org, The odds of getting attacked and killed by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067. In a lifetime, you are more likely to die from fireworks (1 in 340,733), light ning (1 in 79,746), drowning (1 in 1,134), a car accident (1 in 84), stroke (1 in 24), or heart disease (1 in 5). There are 70 to 100 shark attacks worldwide every year, 5 to 15 result in death.
As a surfer, I’m often asked by non-surfers if I’m afraid of sharks. Much of the time it’s the first question I receive. They’re almost baffled that I would spend so much time in the ocean with such a dangerous predator lurking below the surface. But let’s look at some of the statistics. 2016 was an average year for shark attacks, resulting in just four fatalities worldwide. Meanwhile, 38 people were killed by lightning in the United States alone. So I ask, are you afraid to go outside in a storm? If you’re afraid of sharks, then you should be terrified of lightning.
Of course, a bolt of lightning doesn’t evoke the same kind of fear that a sleek, toothy predator you think will eat you does. Sharks rarely eat people, though, even in the case of a fatality. Most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity. A shark doesn’t have hands or fingers to feel something, it has only a mouth. Unfortunately for us an exploratory bite from a large shark can be enough to kill a human. Most humans killed by sharks die from blood loss.
Humans are simply not a part of a natural shark diet, so actual consumption is a rarity. If sharks really wanted to eat humans there would be an attack every day, and pretty much all of them would be fatal. Places like California and Australia see a plethora of people enter the ocean daily. Opportunities abound for these creatures to kill us, yet they don’t. Pretty much every surfer has seen the video of Mick Fanning being attacked at J-Bay by now. If that shark wanted to kill Fanning, it easily could have. He emerged physically unharmed.
There are more than 400 known species of sharks in the world’s oceans, yet just four are responsible for most recorded attacks on humans: the bull, the tiger, the oceanic whitetip and the great white. The great white is by far the most famed of the four. The biggest reason for that? Jaws. The fear that Jaws has brought to the world has since resulted in the killing of millions of sharks. This resulted in Benchley becoming a shark activist and conservationist, saying that if he were to write a new Jaws the shark could not be the villain but only the victim. It’s estimated that humans kill approximately 100 million sharks per year. Contrasted with the fact that sharks kill less than 10 humans per year, this certainly puts the idea of the shark as the predator in a different light.
Yet people remain gripped by a fear of this animal. It would be much more dangerous to walk near a lion than to swim near a shark, but one doesn’t meet a lot of people that are afraid of lions. Maybe we can attribute that to The Lion King. You don’t encounter many animated movies with a heroic shark protagonist. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week remains hugely popular, and while some of the programming helps educate people, much of it still reinforces the same bloody myths of old.
We once thought of whales as these great leviathans that surged from the deep to sink ships and devour sailors. Eventually that myth was debunked, and whales now have a reputation fitting for the gentle giants they are. Sharks may pose more of a threat to humans than whales do, but they are not what they have been made out to be.
So why are we so obsessed with the shark? Perhaps it’s the mysterious quality of the ocean, and the fact that you likely wouldn’t see a shark coming. Perhaps it’s images from film that we simply can’t shake from our minds. Perhaps we’ve been trained to think of this animal as a mindless killing machine. Whatever the reason, our collective mentality on the matter needs to change. The worldwide shark population is already dangerously low, and removing an apex predator for the world’s largest ecosystem could have serious repercussions. The sharks are not the villain here; we are.
This piece was published on Surfers Village / Author: Morgan Dunn