SHARKS ARE FISH that have cartilage instead of bones, a dorsal fin, and toothlike scales. Beyond that, few similarities exist among the 400 species of sharks — except for their common awesomeness — rendering it impossible to stereotype sharks. Let’s clear the water.
The facts on attacks
1. The only sharks — remember there are more than 400 species — that have killed more than one human include the Great White, Tiger, Bull, Requiem, Blue, and Sand Tiger Sharks.
2. Shark bites rarely kill. Sharks bite out of curiosity (they have no arms or antennae so cut them a break). Once they realize you’re not food — and you are not — they usually go away. The rare fatality is usually a result of blood loss from the bite, not from a full-on shark attack.
3. Sharks are stronger than you, faster than you, and are capable of making blood and guts of you in short order. If humans were a food source, all shark attacks would result in fatalities, and there would be many more attacks. But there aren’t.
4. The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) is the only long-term, scientifically documented, global database on all known shark attacks. ISAF coordinators provide regular advice on shark attack issues to governmental agencies, coastal managers, beach safety professionals, the medical community, and the media.
They confirm a certain number of unprovoked attacks per year around the world, but data support the conclusion that attacks are a result of greater numbers of people recreating in shark habitat, rather than an increase of shark viciousness.
5. The US has the most recorded attacks, with 1,022 recorded between 1670 and 2012 — obviously a huge timeframe. Australia comes in second, but has the most reported fatalities (144 as of 2012). Worldwide, 70-100 shark attacks are reported annually, resulting in about 5-15 deaths. Most attacks occur in nearshore waters where sharks feed and can become trapped at low tide, or near steep dropoffs where their prey congregate.
6. Unprovoked shark attacks come in three varieties:
- Most common: hit and run attacks. Most common victim: swimmers and surfers. Why: mistaken identity from poor water visibility from breaking surf. Result: small lacerations, often below the knee, seldom life-threatening.
- Less common: “Bump and bite” and “sneak” attacks. Most common victim: divers or swimmers in deeper waters. Result: multiple bites, frequently resulting in death. Why: feeding or defending their space against antagonistic behaviors.
7. Shark attacks are a relatively infrequent hazard that must be acknowledged by anyone entering the marine environment. But let’s get some perspective. So many more people are injured and killed while driving to and from the beach than by sharks. More stitches sew up lacerations from seashell cuts on feet than lacerations from shark bites. As in any recreational activity, certain risks are inherent, such as shin splints with jogging, and sprained ankles with tennis. For more risk comparisons, check out the Florida Museum of Natural History site.
8. It’s true there are unprovoked shark attacks. But they are usually the result of mistaken identity in rough waters where surfers like to go. And let’s be honest, we’re going into their habitat, but you still have a much greater risk of dying by sand hole collapse!
Their fascinating biology
9. Ancestors of modern sharks swam the seas over 400 million years ago, making them older than dinosaurs. Kinda seems like they are meant to be here.
10. Obligate ram ventilators, such as Great Whites, must swim constantly with mouths open for oxygen-rich water to flow through the gills. If they sleep for more than a few moments at a time, they asphyxiate. However, some sharks, such as the Nurse Shark, have spiracles and cheek muscles that force water across their gills — buccal pumping — allowing for stationary rest.
11. Sharks have multiple layers of teeth, and if one breaks, the one behind it moves up to take its place. Sharks can shed thousands of teeth during their life, leaving behind teeth on beaches — a little gift from them to us.
12. Dermal denticles are scales on the skin that point towards the tail and help reduce friction from the water, making them Olympic swimmers. But rub the skin from the tail toward the head and it feels like sandpaper.
13. Contributing to the cryptic nature of sharks is their countershading. The tops of shark are dark, making them difficult to see from above against the dark ocean below. Their undersides are pale as to blend with the backdrop of bright sun-lit water.
14. Darting through the water at up to 20mph, the fastest shark is the Shortfin Mako. It can chase down the fastest of all fishes, including tuna and swordfish.
15. These elegant predators are perfectly designed for life in the ocean and help maintain balance in the marine ecosystem. They have shaped life in the oceans for over 400 million years, and are essential to the survival of the entire planet — including mankind.
16. The manatee of the shark world is the Whale Shark. It is on my bucket list to share space with these gentle giants, and be dwarfed by the largest fish — let alone shark — in the ocean. Busting the myth that sharks are man-eaters, this bus-sized shark peacefully slurps down tiny plankton.
17. The smallest shark is a deepwater dogfish shark, the Dwarf Lanternshark, which, at under 8 inches, can fit in the palm of your hand. Not quite a man-eater.
18. The average lifespan of a shark is 20-30 years. But as I mentioned, there is no average shark — the Spiny Dogfish Shark holds the record for the longest lifespan at 100 years.
19. A shark’s brain is complex. At two feet long, a Great White’s brain is a linear Y-shaped string of millions of neurons that arranges its functions into hind-, mid-, and fore-brain groups (as opposed to a human brain, which is folded into a compact, circular cluster). Almost two-thirds of the shark’s brain is devoted to its olfactory organs, enabling excellence in identifying prey, recognizing territorial markers, and finding mates.
20. Sharks can see color, and their lenses are up to seven times as powerful as a human’s.
21. Humans are more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to humans. You can swim with sharks with no cage if you do it responsibly. Humans are the predators that will attack unprovoked with ill intent — not the sharks!
22. Humans kill 100 million sharks every year. Not because of mistaken identity, as with the sharks. But for their body parts. One of the worst examples is shark finning, where sharks are caught and thrown back to their bloody deaths after their fins are sliced off. Unable to swim without their fins, they sink toward the bottom and die. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia and elsewhere. Shockingly, the fins are not used for taste, but to create a gelatinous consistency — something that could be achieved using any number of alternatives.
23. Shark products are sold as a phony remedy to ward off cancer, based on the myth that sharks don’t get cancer. In actuality, there are hundreds of cases of sharks with cancer. The multi-million-dollar cartilage industry has decimated shark populations, as the companies harvest up to 200,000 sharks every month in US waters.
24. Another cause of death is longlines, which are hooked and baited lines of filament that indiscriminately kill anything that tries to eat the bait, including albatross…and sharks.
25. Although some regions, such as the European Union, have banned shark finning, commercial fisheries for body parts such as fins, meat, liver oil, and cartilage are largely unregulated.
26. Extinction of several shark species is imminent in our lifetime. 6-8% of sharks are killed each year, an unsustainable rate for populations of fish that are slow to grow and reproduce. Sharks can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation.
27. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement among governments to prevent the unsustainable international trade of wildlife, lists eight species of shark in Appendix II, which is an index of species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but the trade of which is controlled in a manner compatible with their survival.
28. Shark culling (read: killing) regulations have been passed in places like Reunion Island, citing shark attack “crises.” Avoiding surfing in areas with shark warnings can help address this. Why not put more focus on the real shark crisis — the decimation of shark populations from human attacks?
29. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society patrols marine protected areas, exposes shark product industries, and directly intervenes to stop the slaughter of sharks.
30. Sharks are not vicious man-eaters, and any management laws based on that premise could result in ecological imbalance and extinctions. Public opinion and shark management should be informed by science, not by shock journalism or movies like Jaws and Sharknado. We should understand them, conserve them, and ensure their continued existence.
What you can do
31. Support the work of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
32. Don’t patronize restaurants that sell shark fin soup. Don’t buy shark products, such as phony medical remedies or tourist trinkets like shark jaws or shark-skin wallets, if you don’t know how the products were obtained.
33. Shark tourism can be an act of conservation because it creates an economic incentive to protect sharks rather than kill them. Misunderstanding of sharks leads to weak protection of sharks. The experience of diving with sharks builds awareness, and those divers can become ambassadors for shark species.
34. Help prevent shark encounters. Get educated about reducing the risk of a shark encounter before entering the marine environment. Get educated on what to do if you encounter a shark. Get educated on how to dress in the water.
35. Get a new perspective on sharks. If you made it through this article, you’re off to a good start.