The Jaws Effect

So I am going to start this article by pointing out that I have considered myself to be scared of sharks for a long while. But I added this introduction after I had researched the topic a bit more, because I have realised that I am scared of sharks in the way that anyone can realistically create an argument for being scared of something that could kill you. I believe the fear of animals like sharks is a fear of being killed, not fear of the animal itself.

My research immediately led me to the discovery of the danger sharks actually pose, having seen a chart of the world's deadliest animals - which does include sharks, but as the cause of a tiny fraction of worldwide deaths per year. It led me to think about where this culture of terror came from and how it is being perpetuated. You certainly don't see any horror movies about mosquitoes or the tsetse fly.

I think we can all assume that this culture started with Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975 and now widely considered to be one of the best films of all time. Film directors of Hollywood have taken the idea of this film and have run with its success, going on to make a plethora of movies for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. Now we've got the likes of The Meg, which inspired me to think about this issue. We've got Deep Blue Sea, Deep Blue Sea 2, The Shallows, 47 Meters Down and Sharknado, not to mention all of the Jaws sequels (2, 3D, Jaws: The Revenge). The more I think about it, I realise that these films are obviously scary, because they're imaginary and exaggerative: they're basically science-fiction. Watch the first 20 seconds of the trailer for The Meg below for support of this. The 'animal' they're portraying is a monster, not a shark at all, as are most of the sharks in these films. They might make perfectly entertaining horror movies if you like that sort of thing but they are damaging perception towards the animals on which they are based. I'm not saying go swimming with great whites and have no fear, I'm saying acknowledge that this culture of terror is growing vastly out of proportion to the real danger. For example, if you happen to be on a submersible at any point, I'm fairly certain a 70-foot (?!) monster is not going to try and break into it to eat you.


This article is inspired by the forthcoming release of The Meg, the trailer of which you can watch/laugh at above.


"Not long after his novel Jaws was published, Peter Benchley acknowledged its 'inadvertent tapping of a profound, subconscious, atavistic fear in the public, fear not only of sharks but of the sea itself'. The raw nerve he touched was not a new phenomenon: sharks have had an image problem since humans first ventured down to the sea. But attitudes have changed over the four decades since Jaws. Research has revealed sharks to be remarkably sophisticated animals, and only a handful of more than 500 known species have the propensity to bite people. Before he died in 2006, Benchley himself remarked that 'the shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors'." (from Discover Wildlife)

Indeed, according to National Geographic, for every human killed by a shark, humans kill approximately two million sharks. Go to Rufus' shark article to read more about this, but I think it's safe to say we pose more of a risk to sharks than they do to us.

We know that sharks are responsible for fewer than 10 deaths a year worldwide, on average - so much fewer than many other animals that we consider to be deadly such as snakes, crocodiles and big cats. They also cause many fewer deaths than animals we never even consider, like dogs, cows and horses - and other humans, come to think of it. Let's also consider how much less likely it is than we come across sharks as well, particularly those pesky great whites that seem to get all the blame. We have to physically enter a shark's habitat, often for the pursuit of leisure, before we're even at risk. How perverse is it that we're villainising a creature for approaching us in its own environment?

Many of the attacks result in bites because sharks bite prey to test the taste before they decide to eat, and the result of this is that they then swim away because we do not taste good. If this does happen, it's probably out of defense, curiosity or confusion: we're in their space and they're either defending their territory or they confuse us for their typical prey. Let's also just take a minute to note that it is not necessary for contact to be made between a human and a shark for it to be deemed an attack, 'artificially amplifying the numbers'.

Not only is this a culture of terror, then, but a culture of blame and misplaced responsibility. There are anti-shark protection devices everywhere. I remember hearing last year about a device being developed to be attached to surfboards to deter sharks. Having done some research, I have found that device, which is called Rpela. I also found one called Ocean Guardian, which is powered by 'Shark Shield' technology. Both of these are a kind of rubber mat that can be stuck onto the bottom of the surfboard - but don't worry, they don't cause any inhibition to your surfing! This is the latter's unique selling point:

Sharks have short-range electrical receptors in their snouts used for finding food. Shark Shield’s patented technology creates a powerful three-dimensional electrical field which causes unbearable spasms in these sensitive receptors turning sharks away, including Great Whites.

Watch the effect of ‘unbearable spasms’ at 1.25

I'm just going to highlight 'unbearable spasms' and leave it at that. 

My selfish human brain first thought how clever these developments are, and then I remembered that we're literally forcing animals away from their preferred natural environment for the sake of leisure. Yes, I understand people like to surf and, no, I'm not really sure how to get around the situation when unprotected surfers are at risk of attack, but how many times do we need it proven to us that we have no right to interfere with nature for the sake of our 'betterment'? How's this massive climate-change induced heatwave treating you? I digress.

The more I have read about sharks, the more I have become amazed by them. I have never seen an animal more designed to kill: a sense of smell that can detect a drop of blood from miles away; internal ears that can hear movement from 3000ft away at frequencies below the detection of human hearing, even from inside their heads; and a sense of electroreception that can detect prey even when it's motionless under the sand. The point is that sharks are designed to kill, but they're not designed to kill us. The sooner we realise that, the sooner the villainisation and the pointless slaughter will end. 

Food for thought:

Ocean Ramsey believes she can tell the anti-Jaws story: small blond girl in a bikini, big shark - but somehow, in this situation, everyone ends up just fine. Even enlightened. As a shark researcher, she and Juan Oliphant have been working on the North Shore to redefine the world's perceptions of sharks.

Shark Conservation Society

Shark Trust

Project Aware (sign the petition to stop the uncontrolled fishing of mako sharks here)

Maia GentleComment