It’s that time of the year again. The weather is turning cooler, the leaves are changing color, Canadians are leafing through travel brochures featuring sandy beaches, blue water, and warm sunshine. Except…

…except, there’s been a lot of news about shark attacks coming from those very same sunny beaches. Some could be excused for wondering if maybe a skiing vacation to Whistler might not be safer. Even if they can’t ski.

The last time I can remember so much talk about sharks was the summer Jaws was released. To judge by media coverage, beaches have suddenly become much more dangerous places. But is it true?

First, a little basic information about sharks. Sharks are present in the fossil record as far back as 400 million years ago, which means they predate dinosaurs–heck, they predate trees–and have survived through at least four global mass extinctions that knocked off 80 percent of the rest of the planet’s large animals.

There are at least 370 species of sharks, ranging from the tiny cigar shark (8 centimetres long) to the massive whale shark (18 metres long, but fortunately eats only plankton). But all sharks share a few defining traits, including sandpaper-like skin and a skeleton made out of cartilage instead of bone.

Sharks are nearly impervious to infections, cancers and circulatory diseases and heal rapidly from even severe injuries, which may be why shark cartilage has been imbued with near-magical powers by the alternative medicine industry. Sharks live a long time, but also take a long time to mature and reproduce. Because of that, they are particularly vulnerable to over-fishing, and their numbers are dwindling dramatically–not only because of actual fishing for sharks, but also because sharks are often taken by accident: it’s estimated that fishing nets alone tangle and drown about 100 million sharks every year.

That being the case, the real shark problem in the world today is attacks by people on sharks, not attacks by sharks on people. But “people exterminating sharks” isn’t as exciting a story as “shark attacks human.”

Only four species of shark are known to readily attack humans: the great white shark, the tiger shark, the bull shark and the oceanic white tip shark.

Shark attacks come in three flavors: hit-and-run, bump-and-bite, and sneak attack. The hit-and-run is the most common: the shark sees, say, the sole of a swimmer’s foot, thinks it’s a fish, takes a bite, realizes it’s a fish, and spits it out. The accidental victim is left in need of stitches.

The bump-and-bite is more serious: the bump is the shark testing whether the human is prey. If it decides that he or she is, then it takes a bite–or more than one. Victims, if they survive, often lose a limb.

Finally, there’s the sneak attack. The shark is feeding, sees a human, and attacks without any warning.


Two attacks on children, one fatal, one nearly so, and another fatal attack on an adult this summer sparked a feeding frenzy: not by sharks, but by the media. But experts emphasized a few facts that tended to get overlooked: shark attacks are, and remain, rare. On average, there are only 54 reported attacks each year–and this year is on track to be an average year. Last year, when there was little coverage, there were 79, the highest on record. (Admittedly, many attacks around the world probably go unreported, but still, in North America at least, you’re 30 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark. Australian researchers even figure you’re more likely to be killed by a poorly wired Christmas tree.)

Shark attacks happen when people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and send some kind of unintentional signal to the shark that they’re prey. The cases of people actually being eaten by sharks, however, are extremely rare: most sharks spit out any human bits they chomp off, when they find they’ve bitten into something other than the fish or seal they were hoping for. That’s not much consolation if it’s one of your bits that’s being chomped, but it does go to show that the Jaws myth, of sharks attacking humans on purpose, is far-fetched. (Peter Benchley says if he were writing Jaws today, he’d have to rewrite it from the point of view of the real victim–the shark!)

Encounters with sharks, like encounters with bears or other dangerous wild animals, are best seen as a reminder that we share this world with other creatures, doing their best to survive just as we are–and that sometimes their activities and ours are going to be at cross-purposes.

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