By Blaise Jones
Of all the animals on this planet, sharks arguably have the worst reputation. No other predatory animal has the same effect on people. To quote the movie “Jaws”: “You yell, “barracuda!” Everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands.” Is this fear justified? Are sharks the voracious killers of men we think they are?
Not on the Menu
The bottom line is, no. Sharks do not hunt humans, and for good reason. As mentioned before on this website, the majority of sharks are only around 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 m) long. As a general rule, sharks only prey upon animals smaller than them. Anything close to their own size would be too dangerous and would require too much energy to kill and devour. So, right off the bat that removes any threat humans would face from more than half the shark species out there .
Efficiency is the key to shark predation. Large species of sharks require large amounts of energy to keep functioning. For example, a great white shark needs to eat roughly 66 lbs (30 kgs) of energy-rich mammal blubber every 3 days or so in order to have enough energy to effectively hunt. Even the largest human wouldn’t have anywhere near as much energy as marine mammal blubber, and to kill and eat one would be a waste of time and energy.
Dazed and Confused
So why do shark attack occur if humans aren’t one the menu? Shark attacks on humans usually fall into one of three categories: curious exploratory bites, mistaken identity, and self-defense.
Despite their reputation as mindless killers, sharks actually possess complex cognitive abilities. This is fairly common across all predators, seeing as a major part of hunting is outsmarting prey. Combine this with sharks’ already opportunistic predatory nature, and you get an animal that’s surprisingly curious. Therefore, when a shark sees, say, some strange gangly creature making all sorts of racket near the surface, it is compelled to check it out.
Unfortunately for us, sharks lack hands, so when they check things out, they use their sensitive snouts and mouths. This leads to cuts and abrasions from rough and sharp shark skin, or exploratory bites. These bites are really just gentle nibbles when compared to how sharks normally hunt, but when an animal like a 500 lb (267 kg) bull shark or a one ton (970 kg) great white, with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, takes a gentle nibble, it can do some serious damage to the human body.
Oops, my Mistake
The next most common type of shark attacks come from cases of mistaken identity. The most famous example of this is the comparison between the silhouettes of seals and surfers. While visual similarities does probably play a part in these attacks, remember that sharks rely on much more than sight to identify prey.
Many attacks occur in areas where sharks normally find their typical prey items. Therefore, these sharks are already on the prowl. A typical attack occurs as such: The water can be murky and makes visual identification difficult, so a shark will rely on its other senses. A shark’s other senses are all telling it there is food nearby. The shark detects a creature roughly the size of its typical prey item nearby and rushes towards it for an attack. However, once the shark gets a mouthful of bony human and not the delicious seal or tuna it was expecting, it spits it out and swims away.
Moriah Moore, a marine biologist with the Coastal Marine Education and Research Academy, puts it as such: “Imagine that you are sitting in a relatively dark room with your hands tied behind your back. There is just enough light to see vague shapes of things in the room and you are hungry. Looking down in front of you, you can make out the shape of a bowl with some circular objects in it. Looks like cookies! You don’t smell cookies, but you justify this to yourself that they must not be fresh and since you are hungry stale cookies will just have to do. Since your hands are tied behind your back, you lean over to grab a cookie with your mouth and end up with a mouth full of drink coasters! You spit it out, that’s gross! Sharks don’t have hands, and if they are having a hard time figuring out what something is by sight or smell, their only way to figure it out is by feel or taste is and take a bite.”
Let Sleeping Sharks Lie
The third most common reason behind shark attacks is because the shark felt threatened. While many of the sharks that attack humans are very large, you have to remember that the average adult human isn’t exactly small. If a shark is swimming through the water and suddenly this weird, large, flailing thing makes a splash right in front of its face, it’s going to enter fight or flight mode. And if it chooses to fight, it’ll snap with its huge jaws.
In fact, on the list of top 10 sharks most likely to attack one of them is there almost entirely due to provoked attacks. The docile, sluggish, sleepy nurse shark is responsible for 4 percent of the shark attacks that occur each year, technically making it the sixth most dangerous shark on the planet.
However, nurse sharks feed almost exclusively on shellfish, like clams and crabs. Large prey items are not on their menu. And even wild nurse sharks are very docile, allowing divers and snorkelers to approach very closely. They are so docile in fact that some of these divers feel that they can touch and pull on these sharks.
Nurse sharks do not like this.
Since nurse sharks are extremely flexible, they can actually turn around and stick the tip of their own tails in their mouths. Or the fingers of someone pulling on their tails.
So, you’re Being Attacked by a Shark
Still, there are times when a shark will attack a human. While the odds are astronomical, roughly one in three million, there is a possibility that one day you’ll find yourself under attack by a shark. So, what should you do?
Step one: DO. NOT. PANIC. Easier said than done, but even if the shark bite only leads to superficial wounds panicking can lead to drowning or bleeding out faster.
Step two: Get out of there. Do your best to remain calm and begin to swim towards the shore. Odds are the shark will not come back for a second bite, but again drowning and bleeding out are very real threats. The sooner you can get out of the water, the sooner you can get medical attention. This is the key to surviving a shark attack.
Now, even rarer is the shark that attacks and does not let go, or comes back for a second bite. In these cases you’re going to have to make it leave you alone. You’re not going to be able to pry open its jaws or pull yourself from its grip; the shark is WAY stronger than you. What you need to do is make it think that you’re too dangerous to continue attacking.
Sharks possess many sensitive sensory organs on and around their heads. These are your targets. Hit them in their snouts, gouge out their eyes, and scrape at their gills. All of these are extremely sensitive and very important to sharks, so if they feel them getting attacked the shark will likely let go and retreat.
Once released, follow the above-mentioned steps.
Worst Lottery Ever
Again, shark attacks are incredibly rare. There are around 75 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide each year, and only one of these tends to result in death. You’re more likely to be killed by your car and even by your own heart than you are to even be attacked by a shark. On a less grim note, you’re also more likely to win the lottery than you are to be attacked by a shark.
Sharks are big and scary and powerful, but they are not evil. Their reputation as murderous monsters is undeserved, and hopefully reading further articles from this website and others like it will help change your mind about these amazing animals.
- Moriah Moore, Marine Biologist with the Coastal Marine Education and Research Academy
- “The Encyclopedia of Sharks” by Steve Parker
- “Sharks: The Animal Answer Guide” by Gene Helfman and George H. Burgess