Sharks: The Fish We Love To Hate
What’s behind our fascination and our fear?
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: August 13th, 2012
Peter Benchley's novel, "Jaws" was inspired by a legendary series of shark attacks that occurred off the Jersey shore in 1916 and left four people dead.
very year summertime brings with it two things: Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, and lots of news stories about shark attacks on humans. But while this week's Shark Week programs offer some educational (and some quasi-educational) shark-related programing, the news about shark attacks is often sensationalized and very misleading.
Typical headlines include: “Man Hospitalized After Suspected Shark Attack on Cape Cod,” “Mass. Officials Confirm Great White Shark Attack,” “Deadly Shark Bites Increase in Waters Near Western Australia,” and “Probably Myrtle Beach Shark Attack Leaves Four Bitten.” Notice that two of those four recent headlines allow for the possibility that there were, in fact, no shark attacks, only suspected and probably attacks. But even the possibility of a shark attack is enough to strike fear in our hearts. But why?
It didn’t all start with Jaws, although that film had a lot to do with keeping our fear of sharks alive and well. Jawswas based on a novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, and that novel was inspired by a legendary series of shark attacks that occurred off
the Jersey shore in 1916 and left four people dead. But the reason those attacks happened perfectly illustrate why our fear of sharks is misplaced.
The summer of 1916 brought with it an intense heat wave that not only drive thousands of people—who didn’t have the luxury of air conditioning—to the beaches, but also warmed the water off the Jersey shore, making it warm enough to be hospitable to sharks. It was this unusual situation—more people and more sharks in the water at once—that led to the deadly attacks.
But shark attacks are gruesome, and the public reaction to the Jersey attacks was extreme. People began hunting sharks, private resorts put wire fences underground to keep sharks from entering their waters, and the public’s irrational fear of sharks took hold.
Of course, people in 1916 can be excused for their ignorance. Not much was known about sharks or their feeding patterns. But today we know better. We know when and where sharks tend to hunt. We know that sharks don’t hunt humans; they only attack humans when they mistake them for other creatures or when they feel threatened by them. And we know that the number of shark attacks hasn’t grown, relative to the human population. We also know that almost all shark attacks could have been prevented if people had followed a few simple precautions (knowing when and where sharks enter shallow waters, knowing what kinds of swimsuits attract sharks, etc,).
We also know that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, or be attacked by someone’s pet dog, than be attacked by a shark. But still those images of the massive multi-layered teeth inside a Great White’s gaping maw haunt our dreams.
For more information about sharks and shark attacks, go here.