The great white shark is only one of 375 species of shark, most of them harmless. Only thirty species of sharks have ever been known to attack people, and most of those attacks are by just three specific kinds: the great white shark, the bull shark, and the tiger shark. However, no animal works on the human imagination with quite the same malign power as the great white shark – this despite the chances of anyone being attacked by this apex predator being so remote as to approach zero.
My friend and literary agent, Andy Ross, asked me if I was going to include great white sharks in my book. After all, they are apex predators. “No,” I told him, “because they don’t have much of a brain, and therefore their attacks on us are not very interesting.” But later I asked myself if I really knew this to be a fact, or whether I was just mindlessly repeating a cliché I heard. The latter.
It has been commonly assumed that sharks, being fish, cannot have any feelings or much of a brain. But this view, it turns out, is seriously outdated. Writing in the journal Fish and Fisheries, biologist Calum Brown, Kevin Laland, and Jens Krause made the following comment:
“Gone (or at least obsolete) is the image of fish as drudging and dim-witted pea brains, driven largely by “instinct,” with what little behavioral flexibility they possess being severely hampered by an infamous “three-second memory.” …Now, fish are regarded as steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food.”
Makes total sense. So my apologies to the great white.
Where does the fear come from then? It is unlikely to have evolutionary roots, for encounters with sharks must have been extremely rare in human evolutionary history. Some of it no doubt goes back only to the release of the late Peter Benchley’s phenomenally successful Jaws. The book and film created a kind of panic about swimming in the ocean similar in its effects to Orson Welles’s 1938 radiobroadcast of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.
In 1991, in a great surprise, the South African government declared the great white shark a protected species. Louis Pienaar, the minister for environmental affairs, in making the announcement, said that, encouraged by the film Jaws, trophy hunters were targeting great whites in South African waters, convinced the great white was a ruthless man-eater to be eliminated. This would no longer be tolerated. It was an enlightened view at the time, and is now pretty commonly accepted as true.
Acknowledging that his information was erroneous, Benchley tried to make amends. He acknowledged, “It is widely accepted that sharks in general, and great whites in particular, do not target human beings. When a great white attacks a person, it is almost always an accident, a case of mistaken identity.” He went further in a remarkable mea culpa, admitting, “I couldn’t possibly write Jaws today…the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane.” In another publication, he commented: “Shark attacks on human beings generate a tremendous amount of media coverage, partly because they occur so rarely, but must, I think, because people are, and always have been, simultaneously intrigued and terrified by sharks. Sharks come from a wing of the dark castle where our nightmares live – deep water beyond our sight and understanding – and so they stimulate our fears and fantasies and imaginations.” Finally, toward the end of his life, he wrote:
“[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
Just how dangerous are sharks to humans? Well, let me reproduce two fascinating tables here:
Annual Risk Of Death During One’s Lifetime
Disease and Accidental Causes of Deaths Annual Deaths Death Risk During One’s Lifetime
Heart disease 652,486 1 in 5
Cancer 553,888 1 in 7
Stroke 150,074 1 in 24
Hospital Infections 99,000 1 in 38
Flu 59,664 1 in 63
Car accidents 44,757 1 in 84
Suicide 31,484 1 in 119
Accidental poisoning 19,456 1 in 193
MRSA (resistant bacteria) 19,000 1 in 197
Falls 17,229 1 in 218
Drowning 3,306 1 in 1,134
Bike accident 762 1 in 4,919
Air/space accident 742 1 in 5,051
Excessive cold 620 1 in 6,045
Sun/heat exposure 273 1 in 13,729
Lightning 47 1 in 79,746
Train crash 24 1 in 156,169
Fireworks 11 1 in 340,733
Shark attack 1 1 in 3,748,067
Shark Attack Fatalities Compared to Hunting Incident Fatalities
in the U.S. and Canada: 2000-2007
Year Number of
Incidents Number of
Fatalities Number of
Attacks Number of
2000 926 91 53 1
2001 800 79 50 3
2002 850 89 47 0
2003 584 53 40 1
2004 445 42 30 1
2005 405 41 40 1
2006 246 27 39 0
2007 239 19 50 0
TOTALS 4,495 441 349 7
FATALITY RATE: HUNTING INCIDENTS = 9.8% SHARK ATTACKS = 2.0%
Even if we consider only people who go to beaches, a person’s chance of being killed by a shark is less than 1 in 264 million. In the United States, about 3000 people drown every year. A shark kills one person. Do sharks deliberately target humans for attack? Absolutely not. We are not prey for sharks. They attack or kill us by mistake. It is not that they are stupid, nor that they are vicious. They are simply confused.
And humans? Do we will sharks? Indeed. We kill 100 million sharks every year. That works out to roughly 11,000 sharks every hour, around the clock including tens of millions for their fins alone.
Having said all this, I must nonetheless acknowledge that when recently our neighbor saw a great white about half a mile offshore of our house, nobody wanted to go into the water. True, the chances of our being attacked were miniscule, but something prevented us from entering the water, until we were sure, a few days later, that the shark had gone on. Perhaps it was something primitive in our brain, but it was pretty universal at least on our beach. And then we went for a vacation to a popular beach south of Auckland. As we were all catching waves, somebody noticed a shark, maybe 3 or 4 feet long. We all exited the water rather rapidly, and watched the shark swimming just a few feet away. It was, as my 9 year-old son Manu said: “Awesome.” But we stayed out of the water for the rest of the day.
Maybe something else about sharks makes them occupy such a prominent place in our psyches. They are the only wild predator that cannot be tamed. People have lived with lions, wolves, tigers, boa constrictors, rhinos, orcas, and wild boars. Dolphins, hippos, and just about any other animal you can think of, but nobody, as far as I know, has ever lived on intimate terms with a great white. Stingrays may nestle in the palm of your hand like a butterfly and delicately eat from your fingers, but I don’t think anyone has tried anything similar with a great white. Perhaps it’s simply obvious that you do not attempt to tame an animal with three thousand razor-sharp teeth. Or you could take a more philosophical approach, the one that Don Reed, a diver at Marine World/Africa USA, took when his “friendship” with an eight-foot Sevengill shark came to an abrupt end. After years of being together without incident, she took his head in her massive jaws. Said Reed, “if Sevengill was absolutely no monster, neither was she on this earth to be my pet.”
In his wonderful The Empty Ocean, Richard Ellis acknowledges that “perhaps the greatest misconception about sharks is that they are particularly dangerous to people. The truth is closer to the opposite.” If we learn nothing else about sharks, surely this important countervailing truth is enough.