Myth man-eater

People have an unnatural fear of the shark. It is one of the most feared animals on earth even though there are only about 70 shark accidents worldwide a year killing between 10 and 15 people. Where does this fear come from? 

As a child almost every one of us has seen the movie “Jaws” and other similar Hollywood movies, which portray the shark as a monster. These films are suggesting us the following picture:

  • A shark is lurking in the depths of the ocean and is only in this world to bite into juicy and tender human flesh.
  • If a shark sees a human, it  immediately goes into a feeding frenzy.
  • To get at our human flesh sharks will even eat boats.

With this image that has been created for sharks a lot of money can be earned. Therefore it isn’t surprising to see an extra large open mouth of a white shark on newspapers after there has been a shark accident. This will increase circulation and sales!

Let’s read the example of a shark accident from South Africa which took place in 2011. See what the media reported and what the real facts are:

Next shark horror in South Africa: A white shark tore off the leg of a bather. Although the beach in Cape Town was closed because of a shark alert, the British businessman Michael Cohen still went into the water. As it has turned out this was a fatal decision. The killershark didn’t waste any time, biting off the victim’s right lower leg.  The left leg was severely injured. After the attack a seal swam around the 42 year old, probably saving  his life, distracting the shark.

When reading the article we notice the words “shark-horror” and “killer shark”. The image of the beast that has been etched into our minds since childhood is thus confirmed. But is that really true, are these statements correct, including the fact that the seal in the water saved his life?

The facts of “shark-horror” and “killer shark”
Although the shark is one of the top predators in the oceans, shark accidents happen very rarely. Every year, billions of people enter the seas, but worldwide there only between 10 and 15 people that get killed as a result of shark accidents (this trend is slightly increasing as vacation by the sea gets more affordable for people,thus increasing the number of tourists).
As a comparison 150 people die every year due to falling coconuts.

Facts of the life-saving seals in the water
In South Africa seals are the main source of food of the white shark. If in fact there was a seal in the water, the seal did not save Michael Cohen’s life, but was mistaken for food.

Shark accidents with people are usually combined with a set of several unfortunate circumstances:

  • Poor and limited visibility irritating the sharks
    (e the sand being churned up by high waves)
  • Competition and supposed prey, hunting requires quick action
    (tthe shark sees its prey as well as another shark it must compete against)
  • Self-inflicted injuries by man
    (eg. feeding of sharks)
  • Stress bite
    (shark is under pressure or feels threathened, lack of escape routes)

When hunting for prey the shark uses energy. The prey has to over compensate this needed power. People however are almost entirely made of bones and a small amount of fat. Therefore we aren’t on the natural menu of the shark. If there is a shark accident involving a mix up, the shark will usually let go of the person after it‘s first bite. Unfortunately, such a bite can  cause severe and irreparable injury, in rare cases, the death of a person.

Many admirable shark protectors have documented the fact that sharks are not man-eaters. Sharks are neither cuddly animals nor are they cannibals. They are simply wonderful hunters and predators of the seas, who we should meet with the proper respect!