Great White Shark Attacks: Defanging the Myths

January 23, 2004

There is good and bad news for surfers regarding the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). The bad news, according to shark scientists, and contrary to popular opinion, is that great whites are sharp sighted, curious animals, prone to taking "taste tests" of unfamiliar objects that catch their eye.

The good news is they generally don't like to eat people.

"In the 20th century, there were 108 authenticated, unprovoked shark attacks along the Pacific Coast of the United States," said Ralph Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee in Canoga Park, California, and author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century.

Of those, eight attacks were fatal. "When you consider the number of people in the water during that hundred year period, you realize deadly strikes are very rare," said Collier.

Films like Jaws propagate the image of great whites as mindless hunters prowling dark, coastal waters for hapless swimmers—an animal whipped to frenzy by the scent of human blood. Yet not only do most people survive their encounters, many suffer only moderate injuries. Swimmers dragged underwater by great whites are sometimes left with puncture marks, but the animals often don't inflict more severe wounds.

A great white shark can reach 20 feet (6 meters) in length and weigh up to 5,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms); survivors' explanations of their escapes amplify misconceptions about the nature of this beast.

Mistaken Identity

The most common myth is that great whites, with their poor vision, attack divers and surfers in wet suits, mistaking them for pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), their main prey. In this scenario, once the animal realizes its mistake, it releases the victim and swims away.

"Completely false," said R. Aidan Martin, director of ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research in Vancouver, Canada. A shark's behavior while hunting a pinniped differs markedly from its demeanor as it approaches people—suggesting that the animal does not confuse surfers for seals.

"I spent five years in South Africa and observed over 1,000 predatory attacks on sea lions by great whites," said Martin. "The sharks would rocket to the surface and pulverize their prey with incredible force."

By comparison, sharks usually approach people with what he calls "leisurely or undramatic behavior."

Curious Animals

Continued on Next Page >>


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