I think I may have found a new way to approach this incredible fear of sharks phenomenon. Bare with me because this admittedly sounds absurd at first, but I actually gave this considerable thought. What if the RARITY of sharks bites is the problem rather than the frequency? Yes, I’m suggesting that if more people were bitten and killed annually it might actually calm this whole thing down. No, I didn’t just hit the crack pipe, so please read on.
Some of you are familiar with actual shark statistics, others are not and likely have opinions based on news reports. A few short minutes of research on the web will provide ample evidence that the media LOVES to talk about sharks, usually with some sort of fear-factor involved even if no one was injured or even threatened. But if someone was injured or killed it’s a gold mine, exceeding any other story option they may have been prepared to run that day. Chew on this for a minute; how many times have you heard about a person bitten by a shark on the other side of the world while you simultaneously don’t hear about the four people that died in car accidents only few towns away? Why do I need to know that a fishermen in Brazil was bitten by a shark when he decided to jump in the water after the shark when it broke his fishing line any more than I need to know that a hunter in North Dakota was fatally kicked in the head by a deer? Because it sells!
The take away from that example is the regularity at which things such as car accidents, poisonings, and even murders take place makes them less interesting. This regularity raises our level of callous toward such events therefore making them less and less newsworthy. Lack of interest equals lack of sales thus such stories get pushed to the back page (if they make it to print at all). Forget the fact that cape buffalo killed 200 people last year or that 20 people in the U.S. alone were killed by cows. Who the heck wants to read about buffaloes and cows, especially that frequently?! With that in mind, sharks are doing the press a favor by killing people infrequently enough that it is still worthy of headlines when it does happen.
But how many shark-related deaths would it take for it to stop selling?
Consider acts of war in which large numbers of people are killed. Death on a large scale while being worse in terms of actual numbers of lives lost is in some twisted way easier to deal with because we can't relate to a faceless number the way we can the personal suffering of an individual who experienced something we've all seen in the movies. Here’s another way to think of it. Imagine you’re a journalist that wants to reach an audience on an emotional level and your two story choices for the day are of 50 soldiers who died in a bombing in Afghanistan or printing words that cause people to relive in their minds the opening sequence from JAWS.
The strange twist I’m getting at is that our fear of sharks is in part fueled by the fact that they remain mysterious due to entering our lives with great infrequency. How many people reading this have ever even seen a shark for themselves? Human fatalities related to a shark encounter are among the rarest of causes of death on the entire planet. Yet in our minds sharks and humans are constantly encountering each other in a death struggle because of the media's desire to tell us about anything shark related, even if that means the story is nothing more than a shark that swam by a beach at the same time that someone on a hotel balcony happened to be looking out into the water and snapping a photo of that shark on their phone. A natural occurrence suddenly becomes a headline stating that "vacationers had a brush with a deadly predator stalking a beach".
Now what if sharks killed people on a monthly basis rather then a couple of times a year? What if they did it on a weekly basis? Would the allure of a shark headline begin to diminish if our callous regarding such situations began to thicken? Would such horrific “tragedies” slowly stop being listed as tragedies?
There are clear selling points of a story about a creature with razor sharp teeth that lives in a mysterious world below the surface and out of sight when compared to a story of a dog or bee killing someone…for that matter it’s even more stirring than the idea of a lion or bear biting us. But nevertheless, if it was happening somewhat regularly, let’s say at the rate that elephants kill people, wouldn’t the intrigue die down a bit? It might even change our entire perspective on the matter.
When a shark bite fatality only happens a handful of times a year across the entire planet it gives the impression that its an issue we can actually bring down to zero. I mean the gap between five and zero is pretty small! Whereas if 500 shark-related fatalities were happening per year it might instead force us to rethink the way we use the ocean. Largely we approach the ocean as thought it’s a giant swimming pool rather than the dynamic ecosystem that it is, and the rarity with which marine animals harm us only strengthens that frame of mind.
Shark bites is not a solvable problem. Period. We should get that idea out of our minds. With 70% of the planet covered in water that makes for a f-load of coastline and with 7 billion people that makes for a ton of potential human activity along coasts as well as out at sea. We’re upset that 5 people a year die from sharks? Across the entire globe? Really? I mean that sounds almost impossibly low. Instead of wondering why sharks bite us we should be grateful and bewildered by the fact that they don’t. We’re talking about a statistic so low that trying to lower it even further is almost mathematically impossible... unless of course, we kill every single shark out there, which would be a very bad idea for our oceans, us, and the entire planet.
Pretend for a moment that we don’t live in this present reality where our thought processes have already been shaped by everything we’ve seen and heard our entire lives. Now pretend you grew up in a world where 1,000 people a year were killed by sharks and this had happened every year you’d been alive as well as the generations before you. This would be a world very aware that sharks live in the ocean and aware that it might be a good self-preservation act to avoid certain areas rather than assuming we can use any section of the ocean our self-entitled asses happen to be next to at that particular moment. By the way, even at that fake rate, shark-related fatalities would still be coming in nearly 2,000 people fewer than hippos.
Can this idea of sharks being a problem get any more ridiculous? Well, yes, actually. When you add in the fact that we aren't forced to be doing the things we’re doing when these fatal bites take place. Let me repeat that. We are opting to engage in recreational activity in areas known to have sharks. Surfing is amazing, it might be one of the coolest things ever, so I’d never tell someone not to surf. But if that person doesn’t want to surf with the risk of a shark encounter he/she might want to choose very specific locations where shark risk is extremely low. But that would be inconvenient. So rather than suffering an inconvenience we choose to surf in waters known to have sharks, in shark hunting grounds, and even in waters with a history of shark bites. It’s the equivalent of someone wanting all lions in Africa to be killed because he wants to be able to go jogging on a game trail without any risk.
A mean person might say such a choice results in natural selection; also known as winning the Darwin award.
A nice person might say it wasn’t a great moment of wisdom.
But a fool would call for the murder of sharks.
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.