Sharks: Myths, Media and Misconceptions
Story by David Rutter
Imagine if you will, the following scene: You are at Bondi Beach in Sydney enjoying a sunny summer’s day swimming in the waves when the shark siren sounds. You hastily retreat from the water. Suddenly the sounds of explosions and machine gun fire fill the air as the sharks in the water are fired upon until they are dead. The firing ceases and the swimmers return to the water. A shark lies belly-up beyond the shore breakers, its deep red blood trailing in the waves.
Sound far-fetched? In 1935 the Australian government called for public submissions on how to deal with the shark “problem”. One of the submissions involved killing sharks with machine guns and explosives. Out of this process came the use of the shark nets which are common on most beaches – thankfully the suggestion of machine guns and explosives was not implemented!
Each summer brings more news of shark attacks on Australia’s beaches. Each attack is reported to be more brazen and grotesque than the last, and again and again the issues of shark netting and the hunting of sharks are discussed.
It is an indisputable fact that each year shark attacks occur, and some attacks result in the death of humans. Some sectors of the public feel that killing sharks that have attacked humans is a reasonable means to reducing further attacks. The state of Western Australia, for example, decided that in extreme cases, such as when a shark has repeatedly attacked humans, a shark can be hunted and killed .
It should be remembered that when we venture into the ocean we are venturing into a world where sharks live, feed, breed and die. Our own opinions regarding where we fit into a perceived hierarchy of animals do not apply. We are part of the food chain.
Given that we can’t hunt down and eradicate every shark that might kill a human, humans for much of the modern period have sought to fence themselves off from sharks using nets. Shark nets bring along their own set of controversies – one being that in the general publics’ eye the nets keep sharks out, whereas in reality the nets have been developed to kill sharks and reduce the population .
Sharks stir a primal fear within us all. In the water we are out of our natural element, we are unable to move quickly, and we are not able to see clearly for long distances below the water surface. Within this environment the sharks appear to humans to move silently and swiftly. Our perception of the appearance of sharks may also play a part – sharks look “evil”, with their rows of sharp teeth, unblinking eyes, and sleek frame. They have been described in all sorts of ways (especially by creative journalists) – a prime example being “the ultimate killing machine” . Compare this with horses, an animal routinely described as majestic, revered by humans over many centuries. Yet horses are responsible for killing more people in Australia than sharks .
Despite the information available on the behaviour of sharks, some journalists such as Miranda Devine insist on labelling sharks as murderous monsters who want nothing more than to “prowl our waters for human limbs to chomp on” . Is this a realistic picture, or one that our fear lets us paint in our minds? Sharks do kill people – that is an indisputable fact. They do look menacing, and they do silently move through the water looking for things to kill (because that is how they get their food), but are they really specifically targeting humans?
There are more than 370 species of sharks. Nearly all fatal attacks can be attributed to only four species, these being the Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias), the Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas), Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), and Oceanic White Tip (Carcharhinus longimanus).
Most Oceanic White Tip shark attacks have not been recorded – they live and feed in the open sea and rarely stray near the coast. In modern times they have rarely been involved in unprovoked attacks, however during the two world wars, where many ships and aircraft sank or crashed in the open sea, many deaths have been attributed to the White Tip shark. An example of this is the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis in July 1945, where approximately 60-80 seamen were reported to have been killed by the White Tip shark.
Types of shark attacks
Shark attacks are initially classified in two categories:
- ‘Unprovoked’ attacks: Those which attract the majority of media attention about shark attacks; and
- ‘Provoked’ attacks: Which occur when the human touches the shark before the event.
For unprovoked attacks, there are three defined classifications:
- Hit-and-run attack: the shark bites and then leaves. Usually non-fatal.
- Sneak attack: An attack in deep water. Can be fatal.
- Bite-and-bump attack: The shark bumps before biting.
Sharks do not normally target humans as prey. Being sophisticated hunters, they are naturally curious about unusual objects such as humans in their territories. However they do lack limbs with sensitive digits such as hands or feet, so the only mechanism they have for exploring an object is to bite it. These bites are known as exploratory bites – unfortunately for humans exploratory bites can cause grievous harm and possibly death. Some attacks may also be attributed to a shark attacking for territorial reasons.
Shark Attack Statistics
Every year statistics are quoted which indicate that more people are killed by horses and cows than sharks . Indeed more people are killed by dogs than sharks. They are reassuring statistics, but they are only statistics. Perhaps a more accurate statistic would be to show the number of people killed by sharks compared with the number of shark encounters (outside of controlled environments).
More recently, a measurement to gauge the risk of shark attack has been to draw a comparison between the number of attacks and the number of ‘swimmer days’. This method was used by Dr John Paxton and John West in their report prepared for the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. In the period between 1963 and 1999, there were 5 recorded shark attacks in Sydney Harbour, with an estimated 1 million+ swimmer-days having occurred outside the shark-proof enclosures in the harbour. Using this measure the researchers were able to determine that the risk to athletes competing in the harbour in the triathlon and sailing events was very small .
The countries with the greatest number of shark attacks are the USA, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Reunion Island (France), New Zealand and Mexico, according to the International Shark Attack File.
Advice on surviving shark attacks
According to various sources, including the Australian Shark Attack File at Taronga Zoo , there are a number of ways to minimise the chance of shark attack. The suggestions are:
- Swim at patrolled beaches.
- Avoid swimming, diving or surfing in places where dangerous sharks are known to congregate.
- Never swim, dive or surf alone.
- Avoid swimming in dirty or turbid water.
- Avoid swimming well offshore, near deep channels or at river mouths.
- Avoid swimming near schooling fish. If the schooling fish start to behave erratically, leave the water.
- Do not swim with domestic animals.
- Do not swim at dusk or at night.
- Leave the water if you are bleeding.
- Do not swim near people fishing or spearfishing.
- Avoid wearing anything shiny or with contrasting colours, as this will arouse the curiosity of sharks.
Advice from the Australian Shark Attack File on action to take if someone nearby has been attacked:
- Treat the patient immediately on site.
- Stop the bleeding immediately by applying direct pressure above or on the wound, a tourniquet may be used if bleeding cannot be controlled by a pressure bandage.
- Reassure the patient at all times.
- Send for an ambulance and medical personnel where possible (do not move the patient if badly injured).
- Cover the patient lightly with clothing or a towel.
- Give nothing by mouth.
Sharks normally make a single swift attack then retreat and wait for their victim to exhaust or bleed to death. In human attacks near the shore, it is crucial to exit the water as soon after an attack as possible.
Threats to sharks
The greatest threats to sharks are shark nets, fishing and shark finning. Sharks are often unintentionally caught by fishing vessels as “bycatch” (marine life caught unintentionally by nets) and killed. More recently, the practice of shark finning has resulted in 38 million sharks being killed annually for their fins. Often, the fins are sliced off and the shark is then tossed back into the water. Without fins they cannot swim, and they drown. The fins are valuable – fetching up to $660 per kilogram – and are used to make shark fin soup – a soup served in some Chinese restaurants. In the past ten years, the serving of the expensive dish has become a status symbol – the soup is served at weddings and banquets to show guests how wealthy the host is. 
Shark Nets and Shark Enclosures
‘Shark nets’ are used on open ocean beaches, and are a rectangular piece of netting suspended in the water between buoys. They are usually about 200 metres wide and 6 metres in height, and float 4 metres below the surface. The holes in the net are 50cm wide, which is small enough to entangle sharks and other marine animals, and big enough to allow smaller fish to swim through. Shark nets are not intended to form a complete barrier along a beach – so sharks can still get through. They do kill sharks, and by reducing the shark population they arguably reduce the number of shark attacks.
’Shark enclosures’ are rigid barriers used on harbour beaches. Being rigid with smaller mesh, marine animals do not get entangled, and the enclosures form a complete barrier which keeps sharks away from swimmers. Shark enclosures cannot be built on ocean beaches as the continual buffeting by the waves will eventually tear them apart.
Prior to the introduction of shark nets in Sydney in 1936, fatal attacks occurred at the rate of about one per year. Since then, there have been none, suggesting that the introduction of shark nets and barriers has been effective in reducing the number of fatal shark attacks.
Shark nets in particular kill not only sharks but large numbers of sea turtles, dolphins, whales and sting rays, a fact which has lead to calls for their removal of all nets.
The ecological and economic value of sharks is now being recognised, with some smaller island nations leading the way by moving to protect the sharks living in their waters.
The Maldives, a nation of small islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean recently banned the hunting of reef sharks from its 26 atolls, and for up to 22 nautical miles (22km) off the atoll coasts. Apart from the ecological value of protecting the sharks from hunting, the economic value of protecting the sharks is higher than allowing them to be hunted. Tourism is a major source of income for the nation, and an estimated 30% of the tourists visit the island nation for its marine life, with viewing sharks and manta rays as a major attraction. Diving with sharks generates about US$2.3 million per year, and whale shark viewing excursions bring in about $10 million each year; hunting sharks for their fins on the other hand brings in only about $100,000 per year.
The Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean is now creating the world’s first shark sanctuary – banning all commercial shark hunting in its waters, protecting waters measuring 600,000 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of France. As with the Maldives, the move is not only significant for the long-term conservation of sharks, but also for the economy of the tiny nation, which also relies heavily on tourism.
In making the announcement, the President of Palau was straightforward in his explanation, saying:
“Not all nations consider shark fins as delicacies, and we feel that the need to protect the sharks outweighs the need to enjoy a bowl of soup” .
The argument for the preservation of sharks does not just include their immediate economic value – their preservation has intrinsic ecological value too. Sharks are top-level predators, and keep the populations of lower-level predators in check. Without this balance the number of lower-level predators will increase, which means greater stress on the population of their food source. As an example, rays, skates and smaller sharks eat shellfish. Without the larger sharks keeping the population of rays, skates and smaller sharks in check, the population of shellfish will be reduced, which also has flow-on effects. Similarly, a reduction in the shark population has meant that the number of octopus has increased. Since octopus feed on shellfish such as lobsters, the population of lobsters has been affected.
While the machine guns and explosives are not resonating over modern beaches, the dangers – and myths – surrounding sharks and shark attacks will continue to resonate within us for some time.
1. Trevor Paddenburg, “Killer sharks to be shot, slaughtered”, Perth Now, Retrieved October 11 2010 from http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/western-australia/killer-sharks-to-be-shot-slaughtered/story-e6frg13u-1225817663520
2. Ruben Meerman, “Shark Nets”, ABC Science, Retrieved October 12 2010 from http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2002/03/07/2116717.htm
3. Tim Spanton, “The ultimate killing machine”, The Sun, Retrieved October 11 2010 from http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/250860/The-ultimate-killing-machine.html
4. “National Coroners Information Service report into Deaths Involving Animals, May 2006″. Retrieved October 11 2010 from http://www.ncis.org.au/web_pages/Broadsheet2_Animal%20related.pdf
5. Miranda Devine, “Let’s rue the culling of common sense”, Sydney Morning Herald, Retrieved October 11 2010 from,
6. John West and John Paxton, “Likelihood of Shark Attack in Sydney Harbour During the Sept 2000 Olympic Games”.
7. “Australian Shark Attack File at Taronga Conservation Society Australia” Retrieved October 11 2010 from http://www.taronga.org.au/animals-conservation/conservation-science/australian-shark-attack-file/australian-shark-attack-file
8. Bettina Wassener, “Environmental Cost of Shark Finning Is Getting Attention in Hong Kong”, New York Times, Retrieved October 21 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/business/global/21iht-green.html
9. Richard Black, “Palau pioneers ‘shark sanctuary’”, BBC News, Retrieved October 12 2010 From http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8272508.stm
1. Various authors, “Sharks”, Wikipedia, Retrieved October 11 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shark
2. “International Shark Attack File” Retrieved October 11 2010 from http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/isaf/isaf.htm