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Great White Shark

Smile! Great White Shark’s got a good dentist. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The Inertia

As a surfer, the most common question I get from people who don’t surf is: “But aren’t you afraid of sharks?” I tend to want to respond in an incredulous tone with something like, “You drive a car? Aren’t you afraid of accidents?” I don’t do this, because I try not to be a total dick, but I want to because car accidents injure and kill way more people than sharks do. There were about 40,000 fatalities resulting from motor vehicle accidents in the United States in 2016. How many fatal shark attacks were there in the country last year? Zero. Seriously, none.

Look, I get it. I’ve seen Jaws too, but we need to get a little more rational about this subject. In 2016 four people were killed by sharks worldwide. Tragic, of course. And the recent attack at San Onofre is equally upsetting. My heart and best wishes go to the victim and her family (and you can even donate to help her here). Meanwhile, 38 people were killed by lightning in the United States alone. Why aren’t we scared to go outside in a storm? If we’re afraid of sharks, then we should be cripplingly terrified of lightning.

Of course there is a natural reaction to the thought of being eaten by another animal, especially one that can emerge from the mysterious depths of the sea without warning. However, most shark attacks don’t involve the animal eating a human because it’s simply a case of mistaken identity. For example, the most feared shark on the planet is undoubtedly the great white. White sharks love to eat seals because of their high fat content, and we’re just not fat enough for a white shark to truly enjoy.

But sharks don’t have hands to feel things with, only a mouth. An exploratory bite from a 15-foot white shark can easily be enough to kill a human due to the blood loss that such a bite will often cause. Just four of the 81 people attacked by a shark in 2016 died from the encounter. That ratio would be much different if sharks really wanted to eat us, and the number of attacks per year would be considerably higher as well. Just think about how many coastal areas there are around the world that see people enter the ocean throughout the year.

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Of the 400-plus species of sharks on the planet, four are responsible for the vast majority of attacks on humans: the great white, bull, tiger and oceanic whitetip. Yet last year we saw just 81 attacks globally, even with millions of sharks in the oceans. It’s estimated that humans kill about 100 million sharks annually, while sharks kill less than 10 humans per year. Let that sink in for a second. As far as I can tell, as much as we may fancy ourselves prey, we are actually much more the predator in this relationship.

In 2014 more than 600,000 people in the United States died from heart disease, yet folks continue to jam Big Macs into their faces. Four people IN THE WORLD were killed by sharks last year, and people are surprised that I’m not afraid to surf in the ocean? I just can’t get past the lack of rationale there.

The world can be a randomly dangerous place. Someone could run a red light and T-bone you. You could get hit by a bus. You could be attacked by a mountain lion on a hike. You could be attacked by a shark. Should we really worry about all of these “coulds” or just live our lives and hope we’re not destined to become one of those few unlucky people whose fate frightens others into thinking irrationally?

When I go surfing, I am much more likely to drown than get attacked by a shark. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, 90 Americans drowned in 2016, estimating the chances of drowning at 1 in 18 million (.0000055%). So when people find out I surf and ask me if I’m afraid of sharks, a better question would probably be, “Aren’t you afraid of drowning?” It would make more sense.