shark attack

Sharks: Not Vicious, Just Mouthy and Inquisitive

In lieu of all of the sensationalist shark media occurring out there this summer, let’s talk about shark behavior and, in specific, shark attacks and white shark.

Some basic white shark facts (and yes, Carcharodon carcharias is often also officially called the great white, but that just exacerbates all the media attention, so white shark it is). Whites are huge pelagic (open water) sharks that get on average 4-5 meters long, and their only known predator as an adult are orcas. They’re one of the longest lived cartilaginous fish known with a lifespan that appears to extend into their 70′s. They have hella tons of teeth and lots of rows of them, so that when one pops out the next just pops into place as if on a conveyor belt. A white shark’s bite force is something like 4000 pounds per square inch from a six-foot-long animal. (Thanks to wiki for all the basic facts). 

Have a white shark anatomical drawing from wiki, because while it’s nightmare-inducing, it’s the only thing about sharks that should be. 

People love to talk about sharks as these horrible monsters of the deep, eating everything they come across with gruesome abandon. This is just ‘perfect’ for summer, when sharks start showing up on beaches in the US and scaring the bejeezus out of basically everyone. 

Luckily, those people are making things up. You’re more likely to die because you shook a vending machine and it fell on top of you than you are to get bitten (note: not attacked) by a white shark. There’s a couple things you’re got to know about how sharks function to understand why worrying about getting nommed on by one at the beach is pretty silly. 

To start, they’re not man-eaters. Sharks don’t even know what a human is. We’re not aquatic organisms and they’ve probably only rarely encountered humans before, so there’s no reason to assume they’re going to be like ‘omg tasty hooman’ and charge over for a snack We don’t fit into what sharks consider prey, so they’re not going to prey on us intentionally. 

However, they do prey on seals. Tasty, blubbery, freaking-stupidly-clever-and-fast seals. And a human on a surfboard (which is when almost all shark encounters happen that result in injury) happens to look mightily like a seal if all you can see is a silhouette. More importantly, it’s a slow, stationary seal, which implies an easy meal. Most of the time, sharks ‘attack’ surfers thinking they’re seals. And guess what? Humans do not have all that tasty, energy-loaded blubber that seals do. We’re pretty bony and we’re on these weird plastic things that have got to taste nasty as hell. Most shark ‘attacks’ last for one bite, because the shark pretty quickly realizes that we’re not the pinniped it thought we were, and those bones aren’t worth the effort, and it leaves. Not great for the surfer who is now missing lots of bits, but hey, the shark isn’t purposefully being an asshole. It was a case of mistaken identity!

But there are lots of encounters where people don’t get hurt, right? They just get the shit scared out of them when a shark starts face-punching their arm, and panic, and call the media, and suddenly it’s an attack again. This is actually because most of a shark’s sensory organs are on it’s face. 

All those red dots are organs called the ampullae of lorenzini, and they sense electrical stimulus. They’re the organs that all cartilaginous fish use to locate food - when you see a ray sweeping it’s rostrum across the sand, it’s using it’s ampullae to search for buried critters. So if a shark is curious about something, say, a human, the first response is to nose it to get more information. That’s not aggression, it’s curiosity. Then, unfortunately, if it still wants more information, it’ll go and take a nibble - because, if you look above, there are more dots right around the mouth than anywhere else. Sharks are basically the really sharp aquatic equivalent of that annoying baby who has to put everything in it’s mouth. 

Because humanity is collectively terrified of anything that has more naturally provided pointy bits than we do, everything has to demonize sharks, and that ends really badly. Everything gets interpreted as aggression. This, for instance, is a video in which a shark attempts to figure out what a pontoon boat is and gets stuck in the float. The people watching it of course put JAWS music on and captioned it as an attack, but that’s just a stressed shark going ‘wtf is this weird thing and why won’t it give me my teeth back’. 

It’s shark season, but that doesn’t mean they’re out to eat us. We’re a bony, problematic food that likes to play mean tricks by pretending to be seals. If you don’t want to get attacked by a shark? Be careful about being in the water, and don’t surf at sunset or sunrise. If you see a shark being inquisitive, just bop it. They’re not used to any sort of physical contact from something that isn’t either food, a predator, or a mate, so they’ll generally just leave immediately.

Tl;dr, sharks are mouthy babies who aren’t good at differentiating humans from seals, and we certainly don’t help them any.

Shark attack at the J-Bay Open.

Thankfully, Mick Fanning is unharmed.

“We are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured today. Mick’s composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our Water Safety personnel was commendable - they are truly world class at what they do. The safety of our athletes is a priority for the WSL and, after discussions with both Finalists, we have decided to cancel the remainder of competition at the ‪#‎JBayOpen‬. We appreciate the ongoing support we have in South Africa and once again want to express our gratitude to the Water Safety Team.” - Paul Speaker (CEO, World Surf League)

Video HERE

Photo | wslofficial

String of Unusual Shark-Related Incidents in the Carolinas

If you live in the USA and have been following the news, you may know that there have been a sharp increase in shark incidents along the coasts of North and South Carolina. Since mid-May, there have been 10 recorded shark-related accidents on beach-goers. The annual average for this location is usually 6/year. 

(The most recent shark-related incidents along the Carolinas coast. Map is from CNN).

So what’s going on?

Scientists cannot pinpoint a specific reason, and a number of theories have been flying around, especially from the major media outlets.

One is that the proximity of fisherman from the beach was of particular concern in last weekend’s attacks. Bait and dead fish is likely to attract the bigger predators, and with swimmers nearby, it might not be the best mix.

Another popular theory is that drought conditions in the Carolinas have led to decreased fresh water runoff and thus to saltier sea water, which sharks prefer. Moreover, baby sea turtles and menhaden fish have been more plentiful than usual, providing more attraction for the sharks, and another potential explanation for these incidents. It is also possible that their usual food supply has been depleted or has changed its patterns. Overfishing, habitat destruction and increased sport fishing, with its baiting of sharks, also may be bringing the sharks closer to shore.

(A Great Hammerhead shark cruises in the Bahamas. Photo by Austin Gallagher)

Finally,  it may also be due to the simple fact that there are more people in the water. The Earth is as populated as it has ever been, and with the warming waters, people tend to go to the beach more. The increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans in turn increases the opportunities for interaction between the two parties.

24/7 news and social media coverage tends to exaggerate the danger. You are actually more likely to have an accident driving to the beach than being bitten by a shark at the beach. Check out this list of everything that’s more likely to kill you than a shark. Yes, vending machines are more likely to kill you than a shark!

Shark ‘attacks’ are still rare events, and rare events tend to cluster occasionally and get our attention when they do. It is tempting to look for pattern and for cause-and-effect when this happens, but we do not really have any scientific information on this particular event in the Carolinas, and it is thus hard to rule out any theory. It is probably one of those things listed above, but we cannot pinpoint a specific one quite yet.

(Photo by Fred Buyle).

People just have to be smart about it. Don’t go swimming at dusk or dawn, and avoid swimming where there is a lot of fish activity. Sharks have more to fear from us than the other way around. Millions of sharks are killed every year, many for just their fins or incidental to commercial fishing for other species.

We are not on the menu, because if we were, nobody would ever go in the ocean. I really do not like using the term “shark attack”, as it has a negative connotation and implies that sharks are purposefully out to get us. Sharks are not out to get people, and we have to respect that they are top predators and that the ocean is their territory, and we are just guests in it.

Friends first. Mick Fanning & Julian Wilson share a moment of relief safely back on the beach. Seconds after Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark, he and Julian Wilson were picked up by safety boats and removed from the water. Neither surfer was physically harmed. Once again we want to express our gratitude to the Water Safety Team.

Photo | wslofficial

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“I’ve watched it so many times. It’s surreal watching it play out. It’s like, did that really happen to me. I just can’t believe I’ve come through this completely unscathed physically. Mentally I’m a bloody mess, but I’ll come good in time.” 

- Mick Fanning, on the footage of his shark attack at J-Bay

Images of Jules and Mick at J-Bay by Ryan Miller, Trevor Moran, Ryan Miller

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During the 2015 #JBayOpen Final heat, Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark. We are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured. Mick’s composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our Water Safety personnel was commendable - they are truly world class at what they do. We appreciate the ongoing support we have in South Africa and once again want to express our gratitude to the Water Safety Team.

All Photos | wslofficial