Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Human Fear

An interview with author Blake Chapman.

Posted Nov 08, 2017

Sharks get a bad rap in most media. On the very rare occasions when a shark attacks a human, even when there are warnings that sharks are in the area, the sharks are at fault and anti-shark campaigns show up all over the place. Yes, sharks do attack humans and it's often a very sad and tragic event. However, numerous myths surround just who sharks truly are. And, there are many different species of these incredible fishes, 509 as of now, so speaking about "the shark" is very misleading. Only around 30 of these 509 species are known to have bitten humans without provocation and only 11 species have been identified as causing fatalities.

I always want to learn more about sharks, so I was pleased to receive a new book by marine biologist and shark expert Dr. Blake Chapman titled Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear

With permission of the publisher
Source: With permission of the publisher

I reached out to Dr. Chapman to see if she could take the time to answer a few questions and I'm pleased she was able to do so. Here is how our interview went. 

Why did you write Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear?

I am really passionate about the topics of sharks and shark attacks and I feel that there is a lot of room for improvement in regards to how we treat both sharks and the humans who have been negatively affected by them. Shark attacks are such a hot media topic, so we hear about them all the time. But the reality of the situation is that these events are really rare occurrences, and the information that we repeatedly hear through the media is not always correct. I know that shark attacks are a really polarizing topic, and one fueled by emotion, but I feel that more than anything, people just want reliable information. We don't want to be told what to do, we want to be informed, and allowed to make our own decisions. With this in mind, I wanted to ensure that there was a source of easy to read, accurate, and unbiased information out there that broadly addresses the topic and provides the complete picture. 

How does this book follow up on previous interests of yours?

I've had a passion for sharks, and the aquatic environment in general, for a long time now. And for many years, I have worked to learn more about sharks for my own understanding, but also in order to help others to understand them. I've been really lucky in the experiences that I've had. I completed my postgraduate research in shark neuroscience (where I looked into how the visual system develops and is used), which gave me a great background in shark sensory biology. I subsequently worked in animal health at a public aquarium, where I had the incredible opportunity to work hands-on with the sharks (and all of the aquarium's other animals) on a daily basis. Through these positions, I learned a great deal about shark biology, physiology, and behavior. I continued my research all-the-while, focusing on shark biology and physiology, then moving to the science of shark attacks. I drew on all of these areas, as well as other personal experiences I've had with sharks when writing the book.

Blake Chapman with a shark; courtesy of Dr. Chapman
Source: Blake Chapman with a shark; courtesy of Dr. Chapman

Why do sharks have such a "bad" reputation and how has media contributed to their being feared, loathed, and killed by humans?

Sharks have been on the planet for longer than just about every other vertebrate and they have evolved to be incredible predators and exceptional survivors. Humans, who evolved hundreds of millions of years after sharks, evolved with a focus on intelligence. But similar to other successful species, we have developed a suite of ways to protect ourselves. One of those things is fear. While often restrictive (and sometimes antagonistic), fear has been an important survival strategy. The feeling of fear is highly conserved in the mammalian lineage, and is largely a subconscious response. The neural response of fear has changed little since humans first evolved, and so many easily learned fears relate to risks that would have been highly significant to our early ancestors. Predators is a notable example.

Due to fear, the potential damage sharks are able to inflict on us, and our complete inability to control these animals, they do tend to get a bad reputation. They are generally not considered to be cute and cuddly, they have an "alien-like" appearance, and their ways of catching and consuming food can be considered quite gruesome. All of these things make sharks difficult to like. And then, of course, there are movies like Jaws, which provide visual images of a shark attack happening. As soon as we have this visual image (or hear an account of a shark attack, whether real or fictional), our brains consider the risk relevant. The fear and hatred of sharks that resulted from the movie Jaws, alone, resulted in massive and indiscriminate destruction of sharks. 

We are consistently reminded of the most negative aspect of sharks by the media—their ability to inflict serious damage. Although sharks, in general, are a topic of such intense interest within the media, the major focus is on attacks on humans. Yet, the majority of newsworthy information should be on research and development. We are consistently gaining fascinating information about sharks. For example, information stemming from studies on shark immunology is informing really promising research on treatments for various cancers, Parkinson's disease, and lung disease (amongst others). We should also be having a greater focus on shark conservation in the media, which, too, is a significantly more relevant topic compared to the infrequent incidence of serious shark attacks. 

If we were to listen to just the media, and only read media reports, it would seem that there are few more than three species of sharks—great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks—as these are the main species responsible for human fatalities. In reality, though, there are 509 currently described species of sharks. There is enormous diversity in this group of animals, from small to very large, potentially dangerous to harmless, and even flat to round! While likely a low estimate due to the difficulty in differentiating between many shark species (or in many cases, not even seeing sharks that cause bites), only around 30 of these 509 species are known to have bitten humans without provocation. Only 11 species have been identified as causing fatalities.

What are your major messages?

I really want to get the point across that, although they do occur, shark bites are extremely rare events. Every year we see some shark bites, and unfortunately some fatalities as a result of shark bites. While I certainly do not want to downplay the extreme tragedy and trauma these events carry, as is the case with any loss of human life, I believe we need to keep a sense of perspective. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from cancer and heart disease. And hundreds of thousands of people die a year as a result of diseases passed through mosquitoes, or at the hands of other human beings. Yet, there are generally less than 10 shark bite fatalities a year globally. It is also important to note that not all encounters with sharks end negatively. Quite the opposite. Humans and sharks overlap in aquatic environments all the time. It is an exceptionally rare circumstance where negative results ensue. In most cases, interactions are neutral, or even positive.

Sharks are an important part of the aquatic ecosystem. They affect other animals across the entire food web, and directly and indirectly control populations throughout. They even indirectly affect aquatic flora by influencing the behavior patterns of herbivorous and omnivorous prey species. Our oceans, estuaries, and rivers would be significantly, surprisingly, and even unpredictably different without sharks.

In addition to being better at looking after sharks, we also need to do better at supporting and respecting the humans who are in the very unfortunate situation of having had a negative interaction with a shark, as well as the many other people (including family, friends, witnesses, lifesavers, paramedics, and other medical professionals) who would also be affected by these events.

Finally, I really want to encourage people to educate themselves. The onus is on us to learn how to better co-exist with sharks and education is the most immediate and most effective method of shark attack mitigation. There are a lot of simple, free things that we can do to minimise the chance of having a negative encounter with a shark, while still engaging in recreational water activities. Learn about the region and the aquatic environment you'll be using (in terms of shark activity and potentially encountered species, but also for much more prevalent risks, such as rip currents, sandbanks/drop-offs, or other potentially dangerous aquatic animals in the area), understand which (if any) mitigation measures or bans are in place in the area, know where and how you can access help if you need it, and if it helps to alleviate fear and concern, investigate personal mitigation devices (but again, make sure you research these thoroughly, as they are all designed for different environments, shark species, and activities). 

Who is your intended audience?

I really want to target the general public, the people who hear about shark attacks on the news or who read about them in newspapers or through social media. These media sources are great for providing awareness and preparedness and piquing interest, but they often blur the lines between fact and fiction and sensationalize stories. I hope that the people who hear about shark attacks through the media and have an interest in these stories, but don't have much other knowledge on the topic, will be interested and proactive enough to take the initiative to read this book so that they can then form more considered assessments. I don't mind what opinion people come out with at the end of the book, as long as it is based on fact, not fiction, and logic, not emotion.

Are you optimistic that the shark's reputation as a cold-blooded and natural born killer can be changed?

Yes, I am. I think that, although sharks attacks remain highly mediated topics and the fear of sharks remains, in general, we are seeing a shift towards conservation and ethical responsibility. It seems that governmental action in relation to mitigating the risk of shark attacks in certain regions of the world is being scrutinized a lot more, and people are starting to ask a lot more questions. I think opinion will always be split, but it seems that the majority (albeit sometimes a relatively small majority) of people do not want to see any harm to sharks, even after fatal attacks and when mitigation of some variety may be warranted. As a result, we need to be increasingly clever with mitigation solutions. This is a formidable challenge, but one certainly worth pursuing. 

Sharks are natural born killers, but not of humans. In the vast majority of cases, it appears that shark bites on humans are simply really unfortunate natural accidents, and this is what we need to understand.

What are some of your current and future projects?

I hope to continue to monitor shark attack statistics, and contribute to the debate on future mitigation practices to help protect both humans and sharks. I also hope to continue to translate and communicate between various groups, including researchers, governmental agencies, and the public, to facilitate understanding and forward progress.

I spoke to quite a few people who had been affected by shark attacks for this book, and I learned more than I ever expected from this. I was accustomed to working with the numbers and statistics, but the insight provided by actually talking to the people who had been through these situations really made me rethink and reconsider a lot of my own views. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to speak to the people I did (including those whose stories are published, and those whose are not), and I am incredibly grateful for the bravery of these people. I hope I can continue to speak to people about their experiences, to further understand both the positive and negative dynamics between humans and sharks. 

Many thanks, Blake, for this educational, fact-filled, and optimistic interview. I learned an incredible amount from reading your book and hope that it attracts a broad global audience. It also would be an excellent choice for courses in conservation biology and, of course, marine biology. Conservation psychologists and anthrozoologists who study different aspects of human-animal interactions also will find a lot of food for thought in your book. 

Sharks need all the help they can get, as do numerous other animals, and Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear will go a long way toward giving sharks the protection they need in an increasingly human-dominated world in which miseducation, misleading stereotypes, fear, and prejudice dominate our interactions with these and other fascinating animals.