Photo: JonMilnes/Shutterstock

The 4 Steps to Overcoming Your Fear of Sharks

by Emma Thieme Sep 27, 2014

I love to swim. I love to paddle. I’m a superstar boogie boarder. I’m usually game to try pretty much any water sport, but only if it’s within a few yards of shore and in shallow / fresh enough water that I will remain at the top of the food chain throughout the extent of the activity.

I do love the ocean but I’m not exactly an ocean person. My fears overwhelm my interests when it comes to diving deep into the unknown. And by “fears” I mean “completely irrational phobia of sharks that has been known to keep me out of lakes at times.” I know I’m not alone in picturing the 1975 VHS cover of Jaws every time I step in a puddle. Which is why I’ve never understood that overwhelming, uncompromising draw to the deep sea that so many people have. That force instilled in ocean lovers, so powerful they risk lives and limbs just to satisfy it.

When I heard about the Shark Shield — the device that can apparently make a shark feel like it just got slammed by an imaginary Muhammed Ali — I was interested. I didn’t think shark attacks were that common. If they were, wouldn’t people stop going in the water? Wrong. People will go in the water no matter what.

Some backstory on sharks: They have an Achilles heal. They’re extremely sensitive to electromagnetic fields. Every shark has electrical receptors in its snout, extravagantly called the ampullae of Lorenzini. When these receptors are bombarded by electromagnetic waves, it causes the shark to go into spasms. The spasms don’t do the shark any harm, but they’re unpleasant enough to make it change direction. When some washed-up, salty surfer tells you that you can survive any attack by punching the shark in the nose Leo DiCaprio-style, it’s these sensitive receptors he’s referring to.

The Shark Shield is that punch in the nose. It’s a device that surrounds a swimmer in a three-dimensional electromagnetic field, an invisible wall that a charging shark could maybe go through, but probably doesn’t want to.

When I heard about this thing, I just had to read the testimonials. There are five pages jam-packed with firsthand experiences from divers, spear fishers, surfers, and other ocean-loving people, most of whom have seen and dealt with sharks in the wild. One guy even said that as a commercial spear fishing guide, he was used to pushing at least five sharks away on a daily basis.

Although it’s a pretty neat device, the most interesting thing about these testimonials isn’t the Shark Shield itself. It’s the overwhelming passion for the unknown that all of these people share. Some of these all-star reviews are absolutely mind-boggling. According to the sample group on this website, people see sharks all the time and they still go in the water.

One guy was charged head-on by a great white, realized it was repelled by the shield, so he FOLLOWED IT because he “wanted a closer look.” There are stories about kids, there are stories about couples, there’s a story about a guy yanking on a great white’s tail in order to get it away from someone else. This testimonial section has everything you could possibly want, if what you wanted was to never go in the water again.

The thought of a shark is enough to make me get out of the bathtub. But after reading these testimonials, I’ve realized that’s my own misfortune. These people are diving, surfing, whatever, day after day — even without this device — and seeing a world the landlubber is too afraid to see.

So what do all these ocean people have in common? How are they able to overcome that human-natured fear of being a little lower down on the food chain?

1. They’ve taken the time to research sharks.

Bianca McCartt has been scuba diving for several years, but like a lot of us, she used to be afraid of sharks.

“I admit that when I first saw Jaws, I thought sharks were terrifying. My view of them didn’t really change until I became a scuba diver and began to learn more about them. The truth about sharks is that they pose very little danger to humans. They do not hunt humans and being bitten by a shark is extraordinarily rare,” she says.

Most ocean lovers and researchers say people are afraid of sharks because they don’t know anything about them. Bianca’s right. Sharks rarely attack people — the odds are 1 in 11.5 million — but when they do, it’s all over the news. Sharks are easy to sensationalize because the vast majority of the world is already scared of them.

Jaws caused us to imagine a man-eating monster from below, so blood-thirsty that he returned for four sequels. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week had 42 million viewers last year. Honestly, even Sharknado had a little bit of an effect on me. But we must remember these programs are aimed to entertain, not to tell us the truth.

The reality is, they don’t really care about us.

“Although I’ve only been a diver for a few years, I’ve now seen over 100 sharks in the water. These were not cage dives — there was nothing separating people from sharks in these situations. Most of the sharks I’ve seen were Caribbean reef or gray reef sharks, with a few sand tigers (aka, grey nurse), common nurse sharks, and one wobbegong,” says Bianca. “In all cases, they did not exhibit any sort of threatening behavior to the humans who were in their domain.”

2. They have respect for sharks.

There are approximately 500 different species of sharks, and only about a dozen of them are considered potentially dangerous to humans. As top predators, each species plays a key role in the ocean’s ecosystem. They hunt weak and aging prey, keeping populations under control and allowing strong and competitive genes to be passed on.

The fact that sharks play a crucial role in the ocean is not debatable. And yet up to 273 million sharks are killed each year by commercial fishing and “finning” — a practice that involves slicing a shark’s fins off at sea and dumping its body overboard, often when the animal is still alive. The fins are the most profitable part of a shark, used in shark fin soup and traditional medicines.

“We need to take an active role in preventing the extinction of an alarming number of vulnerable shark species, and the first step is to realize we have nothing to fear,” says Bianca.

It’s important to remember that sharks are more often victims of humans than they are hunters of them. Conservation efforts and attempts to provide protection — like the Shark Shield — are focused on educating us that culling the species is more detrimental than just learning to live with and respect them.

3. They use common sense.

Avid surfers, paddlers, swimmers, and divers know to avoid water that is murky or dark. They use caution around sandbars or steep drop-offs, where sharks are more likely to be hunting. They don’t go in the ocean at night, and they know it’s safer to be near a group, as sharks are more likely to attack solitary individuals.

4. They don’t let risk stop them from doing what they love.

There are hundreds of thousands of car accidents every year, yet we still get into our cars every day to drive to the things we consider necessary. People who love the ocean feel that same compelling necessity. They can’t keep themselves away, even if there’s a slight risk. They know that most grizzly images of sharks are created in their own minds. Having an imagination is what brings them to love the ocean in the first place, and they’re not going to allow it to destroy that passion.

“Being in the water with them is a wonderful experience because they are truly beautiful and fascinating creatures. I look forward to seeing sharks while diving more than any other marine life…I highly recommend that people put aside their fears and experience the true nature of sharks.”

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