Don’t tell me not to be scared of sharks

It’s the fear that makes them so fascinating. If conservationists accepted that, they’d have a better chance of saving them

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

For 40 years, ever since Jaws set box-office records and struck terror into the hearts of a generation, there’s been a counter-movement to rehabilitate the reputation of sharks. Marine scientists were appalled by the film, and have spent nearly half a century telling us that these sinister creatures are just misunderstood. Very few sharks are dangerous, they say. Do not be afraid! But I’ve dived with hundreds of sharks, and I’m scared of them. Sharks are terrifying — that’s what makes them great.

I’ve been fascinated by sharks ever since watching Jaws as a teenager. I have more than 40 books about them on my shelves and I read any report of shark attacks I can find. Last weekend a teenage girl and a teenage boy both lost an arm in separate incidents on the same beach in North Carolina. In Réunion there have been seven fatal shark attacks in the past four years: in April, 13-year-old Elio Canestri was virtually bitten in half. I know a wildlife film-maker who almost lost an arm to a supposedly harmless grey reef shark, and a woman who was lucky to survive after a rapid attack from a 3ft-long blacktip.

When I go into the sharks’ environment I expect to have to watch them just as carefully as I would a lion if I were on safari. But it’s this very deadliness that makes sharks so appealing. Without a decent dose of fear, we would lose interest. Visit any of the websites urging us to protect sharks and you will soon be told that there is more chance of being killed by a bee than of being eaten by a shark. Indeed, shark conservationists frown at the idea of being ‘eaten’ at all. Statistics prove that more than half of all injuries to people are the result of ‘exploratory bites’, after which the shark swims off, having established that it doesn’t like the taste of human flesh.

I don’t quibble with all that. Just three, possibly four, species of shark account for more than 90 per cent of human deaths; the great whites, bull sharks and tiger sharks. Oceanic whitetips are the other bad boys, but unless you are a shipwreck survivor you’ll hardly have the chance to meet them. That leaves more than 400 species which are unlikely to bite, let alone kill. According to the International Shark Attack File in the USA, the chances of being bitten by a shark are about one in 400 million. In an average year, one or perhaps two people in the developed world are killed by sharks. Domestic dogs kill hundreds more. And it’s true that in the USA roughly one person a week dies from an insect sting. Golfers have a more realistic chance of being hit by lightning. (In Britain a similar argument has shown that whereas 29 people a year drown in the bath, only five people on average per year are killed by terrorists. But that doesn’t stop me worrying about terrorism.)

I’ve dived with sharks, big and small, all over the world. I admire them for their grace and power. Nothing swims as effortlessly or as gracefully. They can smell blood at concentrations as low as one part per million in the sea. They can detect the minutest electrical discharge given off by a fish in the dark, swim from Cape Town to Perth, and find their way back again to the same stretch of reef year after year. Great whites and several other species are now known to be partially warm-blooded, unlike almost all other fish. Mako sharks have been recorded achieving speeds of more than 40 miles an hour. They are nature’s finest killers. That makes them beautiful — and worth conserving.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says that a third of all oceanic shark species are at risk of extinction. Populations of oceanic whitetips have declined by over 90 per cent in the past thirty years. And between 70 and 100 million sharks are killed by man annually, many of them for use as ingredients in Chinese shark-fin soup. That’s in spite of countless conservation groups’ efforts to harness sympathy for sharks.

Perhaps the conservationists would do better if they realised that fear was their best weapon. I am not the only underwater naturalist for whom Jaws inspired a lifelong sense of awe. Losing our fear of sharks would be about the worst thing we could do for them.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Tim Ecott is the author of Stealing Water and Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World.

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Show comments
  • MrLouKnee

    Last summer I took my wife on her dream holiday to swim with dolphins, I had no idea how easy it was to confuse dolphins and sharks.

    Still, she was insured and now ive got a new wife half her age so it all worked out for the best in the end

    • BlackArrow

      Horrible, MrLouKnee, really HORRIBLE. 🙂

  • reefcreature

    This is a very thoughtful read… Thank you for putting this in a different perspective. As a diver I am always wary of sharks. They are unpredictable and should be respected always. I had one “bump” my strobe once and the power behind this was unbelievable.

  • Callipygian

    Conservationists say everything is in danger: it’s how they fund themselves — and their projects.

    Some animals truly do have reduced numbers: the Florida scrub jay, for example. That is because they are, as the name indicates, endemic to Florida and require scrub as a habitat, great swathes of which have been lost to human building. As with the Florida panther, there were never very many of them in the first place. Manatees are also a small population, again restricted essentially to the coasts of Florida.

    But with respect to many other animals, such as the plentiful dormice of England, the conservationists are either flat-out wrong or they are making up ‘knowledge’ to cover their ignorance, while insisting that humans are to blame.

    By the way, I am currently residing in North Carolina — in the mountains!

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      ”By the way, I am currently residing in North Carolina — in the mountains!”


      • Callipygian

        Heh heh heh!

      • Callipygian

        Not that chicken: we reportedly have bears. Though I myself have never seen one.

  • Dogsnob

    This belief that the intense fear and awareness of sharks, is down to ‘Jaws’, is simply not true. Why do people keep trotting along with such lazy figures?

    • Jules Wright

      Really? Research the catch stats post-1975. They will surprise you. The shark has always been feared. ‘Jaws’ crystallised that fear globally and captured it culturally. Tim’s piece is sound.

      • Dogsnob

        I didn’t say this piece is unsound. I just don’t agree that ‘Jaws’ was breaking any news to humans – yes, we did know already, that sharks are to be feared. This fact didn’t need crystallising or ‘capturing culturally’ whatever that might mean.
        What have ‘catch stats post 1975’ to do with it?

        • Jules Wright

          There was a massive, continued and dangerous spike in great white catches after Jaws was released (1975). The film captured the essence of shark-fear on a global scale and amplified it – the result being the white (and to a lesser extent its smaller brother the mako) was hunted and fished worldwide close to endangerment.

    • Disgruntledgoat

      Pretty much the entire Western Pacific stock of mature Great Whites were wiped out post Jaws.

      • Dogsnob

        To repeat: the world’s humans were very aware, prior to 1975, that sharks were dangerous. I think it was to do with their unruly lifestyle, their massive appetite and their rows of razor-sharp teeth.

  • freddiethegreat

    Tim, I accuse you of squalophobia

  • BlackArrow

    I let my little son see Jaws, now 100 Facts about Sharks is his favorite bedtime story book, and he knows the name of almost every shark species there is.

    Is there any movie about the Black Adder (snake)? He’s got more chance of a run-in with one of those, around here, and I’d like to transfer his interest to land animals beyond dinosaurs.

  • greggf

    The fear comes from not being aware of them until it’s too late. They appear from nowhere, my daughter experienced this from the protection of a Shark Cage off the coast of Capetown last Christmas.

  • MathMan

    Factoid: Sharks will only attack you if you’re wet.

  • GenJackRipper

    I agree.
    It’s not like I would want the sharks to disappear because I’m afraid of them.

    Some might argue like that, but to me, that’s simply retarded.

  • polistra24

    Those statistics are dumb. Everyone encounters bees and dogs all the time. Only a tiny fraction of the population swims in the ocean and encounters sharks. Those swimmers are the only ones who even need to think about sharks. The chance needs to be figured for that tiny fraction, not for everyone. This will raise the risk percentage tremendously, for the folks who need to know it.