“Don’t Call Them ‘Shark Attacks’” screamed the headline from one of our national newspapers recently. The article that followed suggested we need to re-think how to describe the event that occurs when a human and a shark meet. The recommendation is to consider terms like “bite” or “incident” or “encounter” instead of “attack”.
I suppose there’s some value in this as a way of altering the public’s perception about sharks, one that is in many ways the result of Peter Benchley’s book and follow up film, “Jaws”. (Why, that name itself is enough to strike fear into any brain!)
I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about sharks when I researched and wrote my book “Shark Assault” (sharkassault.com). (By the way, I picked that title itself because I felt a shark “attack” suggested a finite activity while an assault has longer range impact. Indeed, for the lady I wrote about – Nicole Moore, a nurse on vacation in Mexico who was attacked twice by a bull shark and nearly died as a result – the ongoing impact has been huge.) In seeking to determine just why this shark had mercilessly attacked, not once, but twice, I had meaningful conversations with three of the world’s foremost experts on sharks: Dr. Gregory Skomal of the University of Massachusetts; Dr. Eugenie Clark, known internationally as “The Shark Lady” and founder of the Mote Marine Laboratory, who undertook her last ocean scuba dive at age 91; and George Burgess, ichthyologist, fisheries biologist and former director of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File that investigates every known shark/human “event” that occurs anywhere in the world. Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned:
-Sharks do not like eating people (they typically eat crustaceans, fish, seals, birds, squid, turtles, sea snakes, dolphins and even smaller sharks)
-Shark attacks are very rare
-You are more likely to be struck by a bolt of lightning, die from a bee sting or perish from sunstroke than be attacked by a shark
-Sharks do not attack in groups: they are solitary animals
Now, I’m not going to go into the causes of the attack that nearly killed Nicole (and indeed, it was an attack in every sense of the word), but what I will share with you is another story. Two years ago, 21-year-old Jordan Lindsey was in the Bahamas gently swimming in the sea when she was attacked (yup, that word again, and once again it’s being used accurately) supposedly by a group of three sharks. This event left her dead. I talked with George Burgess about this and he told me this:
I have not received any confirmation that three sharks were involved in the attack, having only seen one mention of that in the initial press report. Often a witness in the heat of the moment mistakenly ‘sees’ more than a single shark when in fact he-she is seeing the head and tail or other fins of a single animal. That said there were credible reports of more than one shark in the area, not surprising since the tour group was – I’m not kidding – swimming with pigs!
Most likely, however, other sharks may have come in close to observe, but only a single shark was involved in the actual attack. Bull sharks are very solitary by nature, in part because they are far less abundant than other species. In the Bahamas, the Caribbean reef shark outnumbers the bull by orders of magnitude.
I have not seen autopsy photographs of the victim. With those I likely could tell if one or more sharks were involved.
Really? Swimming with pigs!? And they wonder why sharks get interested.
But hold on here. Sure, we can devote evenings fueled by fine wine and debating whether to refer to attacks, events or bites, but what’s more crucial than language, I believe, is the fact that the shark population has declined by over 70% since 1970! This is largely the result of overfishing and the terrible practice of “finning” (the process of slicing off a shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the still-living body, often by dumping it back into the ocean where it suffocates). Sharks are today declining rapidly on a global scale because humans have replaced them as the ocean's top predators. Approximately 100 million sharks are killed globally each year, and one of the major incentives for this is the shark fin trade. Nicole Moore joins me and many others in wanting to protect sharks, adding, "I don't want to have a shark as a pet in my bathtub or anything, but I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn't the shark's fault. We need to save these creatures."
My friend Dr. Peter Sale noted marine ecologist and author of the book “Our Dying Planet” who has seen firsthand the degradation of coral reefs during the course of his working life, explained to me that sharks are the “policemen” of the ocean reefs. “They keep order down there. Without the sharks, chaos follows.”
So, bottom line: whether you get hung up on circumlocution in talking about sharks or not, let’s get behind the movement of safeguarding these magnificent animals before it’s too late. STOP FINNING!
I’ll give the last word to the late young filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart who said this about his love of sharks:
“You see the thing you were taught your whole life to fear, and it’s perfect,
and it doesn’t want to hurt you, and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”