Last month’s highly publicized shark attack on Mick Fanning, a pro surfer, got me thinking about the way sharks are portrayed in today’s media. On July 19, Mick was surfing in the J-Bay Open, a competition in South Africa, when a great white shark appeared out of nowhere and flipped him off his board. Mick punched the shark in the back, was picked up quickly by rescuers, and got away uninjured. A week later, he returned to the water and began surfing again.

For reference, here is a clip of Mick Fanning being attacked by the shark:

Now don’t get me wrong – this clip really scares me. Never in a million years would I want to be in Mick’s situation, and I am so extraordinarily glad that he is alive and unharmed. There really is something about sharks that incites a primal fear within us, an instinct of man versus beast. That’s what’s so attractive about a movie like Jaws, which came out in the 70s: it appeals to our emotional side. It portrays sharks as monsters that terrorize human populations and need to be hunted, and doesn’t focus on the ecological consequences of removing such an important apex predator.

Movie poster of Jaws, 1975
Movie poster of Jaws, 1975 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073195/

It’s no wonder that people are scared of sharks – all we hear about them are recent attacks on people. In reality, there are on average only 19 shark attacks every year in the U.S., and 50-70 shark attacks worldwide. It’s just that those few shark attacks get tons of press, so it feels like we hear about shark attacks a lot. In fact, you are more likely to be killed by falling coconuts, lightning, and vending machines than you are to be killed by a shark. I tried Google searching “how likely are you to get killed by a shark”, and the first six results were lists of things more likely to kill you than a shark:

It is important to note that many of these statistics may be skewed, and a person that lives near the ocean and goes swimming every day is way more susceptible than someone who has visited the beach once. But you get the point. The media focuses so much on how many people are hurt or killed by sharks (which we know isn’t a lot) and not enough on how many sharks are killed by people. Over 100 million per year, in fact. We kill sharks as bycatch, hunt them for shark fin soup (which you can read more about in a previous post), and are quickly destroying their habitats, not to mention changing the chemistry of the ocean through climate change. So who is the real predator?

Sharks are near the top of the marine food web and there aren’t very many of them, since they eat a lot of the biomass lower on the food chain. Taking away too many sharks, which we have done, has extremely severe consequences for everything else in the marine ecosystem. Removing this key species disrupts an intricate checks-and-balances system that has taken millions of years to evolve. Sharks are terrorized enough by humans without all the negative media and antagonistic stigma surrounding them.

So where can you find information about sharks that focuses on their positive and ecologically important attributes? Here are some Positive Shark Media Sources:

I swam, snorkeled, and dived with sharks during my adventures through the Pacific this spring, and I was continually amazed with how majestic they were and how beautifully they glided through the water, while I remained perfectly at ease. While it’s important to note that I only have experience with reef sharks and small nurse sharks, and I would never want to be in the water with a great white, every encounter with sharks was really magical for me. I wish that everyone could have the chance to experience these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, on their own terms. Hopefully moving forward, the most readily accessible information on sharks will look less like this Google search, which shows sharks from the bottom up, with their teeth barred and emotional triggers abounding:

And more like this video I took while scuba diving with sharks in Palau:

*Cover image is from http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/065/custom/shark-attach_6558_610x343.jpg