Sharks: Friend or Foe?

By: Sarah Brill  |  September 19, 2019

Science and Technology

By Sarah Brill, Sci-Tech Editor

What is one thing we always hear on the news concerning the ocean? Not “trash is polluting the ocean and oceanic reefs are in danger” or “sea turtles at risk because of plastic straw usage.” Nope, instead we hear a classic Jaws headline: “Man’s leg torn off by a massive great white shark off the coast of Long Island.” 

What makes these stories so popular? 

When Jaws was released in 1975, director Steven Spielberg made it a point to highlight sharks’ destructive and dangerous nature. Since then, every shark attack has been blown out of proportion. But what are the real motives of these creatures of the deep?

There are many types of sharks and I am not going to delve into the complexities of each one, but I will focus on the Great White — the one which gets the most attention. The media constantly depicts sharks as creatures which attack humans. However, with its diet consisting mainly of sea lions, seals, small-toothed whales, and sea turtles, it would seem odd that the Great White would go after humans, who mostly resemble apes. 

There is one main explanation as to why a Great White may find humans attractive. It is common knowledge that Great Whites, along with many other hunting mammals of the ocean “see with their noses.” This indicates that their eyesight is not superb and that they mainly hunt based off the smell of blood. This explains a great deal. Many shark “attacks” happen while the person is on his or her surfboard. 

Picture this. I am a shark that is slightly blind and can see a person, or in this case, an object, lying with its arms and legs spread out over a long stick-thing. What do I see? I, as the shark, may look and see a sea turtle or sea lion, and I attack this sea creature only to find out that it does not taste as such and I quickly spit it out. 

Now I am the human. I have just been bitten and the lifeguard sees me and quickly rushes me to the hospital. The incident gets reported on the news as “another shark attack off the coast of…” 

Sharks do not like to “eat” humans. If they did, then instead of the news reporting “another shark attack,” they would report a “shark killed so and so.” This is because sharks are not the killers Steven Spielberg portrays them to be. They are misunderstood by the majority of the population and over-publicized by the media. According to National Geographic, “[…] of the 100-plus annual shark attacks worldwide, fully one-third to one-half are attributable to [G]reat [W]hites. However, most of these are not fatal, and new research finds that [G]reat [W]hites, who are naturally curious, are ‘sample biting’ then releasing their victims rather than preying on humans. It’s not a terribly comforting distinction, but it does indicate that humans are not actually on the [G]reat [W]hite’s menu.”

So the next time you step in your neighborhood’s ocean area, keep in mind that these creatures do lurk close to shore. Take precautions, but know that they mean no harm and are just our big-toothed curious friends of the deep.