From Jaws to The Shallows, Hollywood loves preying on our fear of sharks. To be fair, it’s quite a rational fear; sometimes up to 20 ft long, with rows of sharp teeth, ready to feast on humans, sharks make the perfect villain for us to root against.
Every so often you’ll see on the news footage of a shark swimming too close to shore off the coast, or even a shark attack, and it send us into a frenzy. Fear sells, “Horrific Shark Attack” is great clickbait and you don’t even need the help of Steven Spielberg.
As I said, it’s not irrational to fear sharks, they are very intimidating creatures, but in reality you’re more likely to get crushed by a vending machine than attacked by a shark.
On a global scale, unprovoked shark attacks are on the decline. According to The International Shark Attack File, there were just 66 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks in 2018 with four fatalities.
Australia saw a slight increase in unprovoked shark attacks last year, overall there were 20 - one of which was fatal. Australia sits right behind the US, which had the most confirmed unprovoked shark attacks last year with 32 attacks. Think back to how crowded the beach was last time you went or just watch any episode of Bondi Rescue, now consider how many people go to the beach and compare that to 66 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks.
Every time you go for a dip, you are accepting the risks, just like every time you go for a bush walk in summer you are accepting the risk of coming across a deadly snake. The ocean is their home, how would you react if a stranger entered yours?
The hysteria surrounding shark attacks might lead people to believe they’re horrible, murderous creatures, but sharks play an important part in our oceans ecosystem. They help allow seagrass beds and coral reefs flourish. Killing mass amounts of the apex predators will only upset the natural balance between predators and prey in the ocean.
You may feel safer knowing there’s a shark net “protecting” you from threats of the sea, but shark culling is doing more harm than good. According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, in the 60 plus years New South Wales has utilised shark nets and drum-lines to prevent shark attacks, more than 15,000 marine animals have been killed. This doesn’t just mean sharks, this also includes other animals like dolphins, whales, dugongs and turtles.
Writing for the Seal Life Trust, Aquarist Alice Forrest points out the shark nets don’t prevent sharks from swimming close to shore, given they are only 150 metres wide and 6 metres in height, which will generally allow sharks to swim around them. Shark nets are essentially a bandaid solution to the “problem”. She also points out the decrease in shark attack fatalities is due to to swift and effective medical response teams rather than “improved” shark management techniques.
There are several more efficient ways to prevent shark attacks. Popular beaches are monitored by surf lifeguards and in 2014, sharks jumped on the Twitter bandwagon (kind of), in an attempt to prevent shark attacks. In Western Australia, 338 sharks were tagged with acoustic transmitters and when shark swims too close to shore, a Tweet is sent out by the Surf Life Saving Western Australia. This not only serves as a great public service, the tagged sharks are monitored by scientists, which will give them insights into the behaviour and movements of sharks. NSW has also tagged more than 400 sharks and utilises an underwater surveillance system which also alerts beachgoers of any sharks in the area. Drones and helicopters are also being utilised to spot sharks along shorelines.
Of course, above all else the best way to prevent a shark attack is to educate yourself, there are several precautions you can take to ensure your own safety. For example, don’t wear shiny jewellery, sharks may mistake it for fish scales, don’t swim at nighttime, dawn or dusk, don’t enter the water if you’re bleeding - blood attracts sharks and swim in groups, sharks are more likely to attack if you’re alone.
What you’re doing in the water could also put you at greater risk. According to the International Shark Attack File, surfers and those participating in board sports accounted for 53 per cent of shark attacks, followed by those swimming and wading (30 per cent). However, if you’re just frolicking in the shallow end, that’s cool, one 3 per cent of people were attacked there, so if you’re not feeling too confident don’t go too far out.
Overall, sharks are pretty cool and they play a vital role in the oceans ecosystem. Although a little fear is healthy, the panic is unnecessary and killing sharks is not the way to go.
“Sharks have been around for over 420 million years and and hopefully they will be around for many more,” says Jess Brading, Founder of Clear Tides.
“With education, we can share our beautiful oceans [with sharks] - peacefully and respectfully.”