Just the mention of the word "shark" still strikes fear into the hearts of most people. The word evokes images of huge maneaters, like the great white shark in the movie Jaws, that attack swimmers and divers, tear them to pieces or even swallow them whole. Such brutal attacks can and do occur but not to the extent that most of us imagine. In 2012 the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History recorded 80 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide of which only seven resulted in fatalities. When you consider how many millions of people work and play in the seas and oceans, such a small number of attacks hardly justifes the shark' s terrible reputation. The fact is, sharks rarely attack humans, and when they do, it is for reasons which seem incompatible with our general perception of these creatures as ferocious maneaters.
One reason sharks attack is territoriality. Sharks, like many other creatures, including us humans, are territorial, and we should be cautious when we swim, surf or dive in areas of the ocean where sharks are common. It is their element, not ours. Sharks are basically curious but usually avoid confrontation. They have a special body language that tells other sharks or large sea creatures to keep away from their space. Of course, most of us don't understand these signals and if we stay too long in a shark's space, it may attack us. Divers who explore wrecks or reefs are very vulnerable to this type of attack.
Another reason is our size and shape: we are an appropriate food size for many species of sharks such as tigers and great whites. It is even possible that, because of their poor eyesight, they mistake us for seals and sea lions, their normal prey. Some researchers feel that the reason so many surfers are victims of shark attacks is because they look just like a seal when they are lying on their surfboard waiting for a wave. They also point out that sharks don't often eat the humans they attack. One theory is that the human body does not provide the high-energy fat that sharks expect from seals and sea lions.
A third, and probably the most common reason why sharks attack humans, is the immaturity of young sharks. Just as a human child will put in its mouth anything that comes within its reach, young sharks will often take a nip at the leg or the arm of a surfer, a diver or a swimmer, but will just as quickly release it once they feel resistance. That is why most shark attacks are not fatal, although the resultant wounds are often horrible. Once again, the most likely victims of this type of attack are surfers, especially when they are lying flat on their board and their arms and legs are sticking out.
There is one final reason, although this is perhaps more mythical than scientific: a very few sharks, once they have tasted human flesh, become maneaters. This is the theory of the rogue shark which attacks any human it encounters in the ocean. The incident which inspired the movie Jaws, for example, was a series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey between July 2nd and 12th, 1916 that cost four people, including a 12-year-old child, their lives. A few days after, on July 14th, fishermen caught a great white shark just four miles away from where the last attack took place, and in its stomach they found 15 pounds of human flesh and bones, including the shin bone of a child. In this type of attack there are no typical victims.
Such cases are rare, but they are the ones that make front-page news and seem to confirm our worst nightmares about the shark. Fortunately, research and statistics about shark behavior paint a very different picture and there is hope that this knowledge will help us overcome our irrational fears and learn to view this creature with the respect, and caution, it deserves.
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