Dah-dum. Dah-dum. Sharks. They are arguably evolution’s single greatest feat, descendants of fierce aquatic dinosaurs, stalking the ocean for prey and striking fear into the hearts of men for centuries.
Given their physical makeup, it’s no wonder the ancients regarded sharks as near-mythical monsters of the deep. Today, even with modern technology and biological research at our disposal, we still are mystified, perplexed, and scared stiff by sharks. But why?
Two words: Shark Week. Yes, that self-indulging, endlessly entertaining program that runs annually (in the United States) on the Discovery Channel is, in a nutshell, the reason we fear sharks like we fear in-laws and flash floods. We watch in strange, horrified glee as an 18-foot jaw of death devours an adorable little seal pup. We’re fully captivated by the scene’s violent beauty, prompting some kind of neurological reaction awash in primal fear. And we can’t get enough – every new “Shark Attack!” headline grabs our attention as quickly as the last.
The media in all forms loves sharks, from the Discovery Channel to Hollywood movies to local news networks. More specifically, they love stories that sell – stories like plane crashes, celebrity scandals, kidnappings, fires, landslides, and tornadoes. And sharks may be the most irresistible headline of all: they’re big, scary, and mysterious. Plus, they can eat you.
By the Numbers
Mass media aside, are sharks really that dangerous to humans, and specifically, surfers? Let’s look at the statistics. Roughly 65 people are attacked by sharks each year worldwide. In 2000, there were a record 79 attacks worldwide, 16 of them fatal. In 2002, there was only one reported death. Because of the relative infrequency of shark attacks on surfers, statistics aren’t readily available, but along the west coast of North America (an area home to the great white shark), there were only 41 confirmed shark attacks on surfers during the entire twentieth century.
Shark attacks are rare and fatal attacks are even less frequent. In fact, more people die annually from falling coconuts (150) and being struck by lightning (47) than from being attacked by a shark. Of course, if you’re constantly swimming in shark infested waters and rarely near a coconut tree, those statistics aren’t very telling.
The United States records the largest number of attacks each year, followed by Australia and South Africa. The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) reports that most attacks in the U.S. have occurred in Florida, Hawaii, California, South Carolina and North Carolina. In 2009, the ISAF recorded a total of 2,251 attacks worldwide since 1580, 464 of which were fatal.
Reasons for Attacks
Despite the infrequency of sharks attacking humans, the fact that they do occasionally wreak havoc on an unsuspecting swimmer or surfer leads us to wonder if and why sharks attack humans purposefully.
Amazingly, shark research is still in its early stages. Although scientists are still trying to understand shark behavior, it is widely believed that feeding is not a reason that sharks attack humans, and that most shark bites are simply exploratory. The human body offers little in the way of a nutritious meal for a shark: we don’t provide enough fat and meat to sustain a shark’s high-fat diet. Most shark experts agree that the reason sharks attack humans (and specifically surfers) unprovoked is simply due to a case of mistaken identity, pointing out the similarity in shape between a surfboard and a seal.
Another common misconception is that most sharks are dangerous, blood-seeking predators, when in reality only a few species pose a potential threat to humans. Only four out of over 360 shark species have been involved in a significant number of unprovoked shark attacks: the great white, tiger, bull, and oceanic whitetip.
Responsible for the greatest number of shark attacks on humans is the oceanic whitetip, an aggressive species found almost exclusively in deep, tropical waters. Because its habitat exists far offshore, the oceanic whitetip does not represent a serious risk to surfers.The great white, tiger, and bull shark, however, all share common traits that make them dangerous to surfers: they’re often found in shallow water close to land, and their behaviors are unpredictable and sometimes highly aggressive.
Unfortunately for surfers, there are no guaranteed measures for preventing a shark attack. Although there are several shark-prevention technologies available, such as board decals and electromagnetic emission repellents, none of them have proven to be reliably successful. Below are a few tips for preventing an attack, according to ISAF:
- Don’t swim alone, since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
- Avoid the water at dawn, dusk, or night, when sharks are more likely to feed.
- Avoid areas with known effluents or sewage and those being used by fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity.
- Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or menstruating.
- Do not wear shiny jewelry or bright clothing.
- Avoid areas where sharks are generally located, such as murky water or steep drop-offs.
- Refrain from excessive splashing and do not allow pets in the water.
- Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if a shark is seen.
Weighing the Risk
Let’s evaluate. We know it’s unlikely that sharks purposefully attack humans for food. We know the rarity of unprovoked attacks. We know that the shark species responsible for the greatest number of attacks lives far from land in the open ocean. We’re also aware that other dangers associated with surfing – driving to the beach, drowning, or getting crushed by a massive wave – pose a far greater threat to surfers than sharks. Still, as frequenters of the ocean and its marine habitat, surfers must acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that we’re sharing the water with a wide range of species, a few of which are potentially life-threatening.