When the terrifying thriller, Jaws, came out in theaters in 1975, we all became obsessed with shark facts. Many of us were afraid to swim in the ocean at all. But many of us were also a little afraid to take a shower after seeing the 1960s horror film, Psycho. And, truth is, we are probably less likely to get killed by shark attack than we are by a knife-wielding psychopath in the shower.
A bloody ocean death seems much more likely because Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel-turned-movie was just that scary. Because of the irrational fear of sharks the movie stoked, and the large-scale harvesting of shark fins, Benchley–now a steward of shark conservation–says he would rewrite Jaws today, making the shark the victim rather than the villain.
But never fear. Before you dive back into the water, gear up with some shark facts and information about diving made safe for both humans and sharks.
What Is Shark Diving?
After watching hours of gorgeous diving footage on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, we may be inspired to dive off the couch and go swimming with the big fishes ourselves. There are companies who specialize in suiting divers up for shark cages or guiding trips for snorkeling or diving with the awe-inspiring animals near coral reefs.
The shark cage allows divers to feel more safe with some bars in between them and the apex predators. But many experienced divers say this is unnecessary and more a product of our imaginations than a need based on shark facts.
Is Shark Diving Safe?
The odds are in our favor. For example, in the United States, a beach-goer’s chance of getting attacked by a shark is 1 in 11.5 million, and a person's chance of getting killed by a shark is less than 1 in 264.1 million. That’s pretty rare. By comparison, the odds of getting killed in a car accident are 1 in 77, a fact that certainly does not stop us from driving.
Humans are much more of a threat to sharks than vice versa. An estimated 73 million sharks are killed every year just for their fins. Shark fin soup is a popular menu item in some cultures and has encouraged fishing even among species that are endangered.
Facts about Shark Diving
Before you dive, make sure not to be a flashy dresser. Brightly colored fins and dive gear may unintentionally attract sharks. Divers should stick to dull colors. Also, make sure you have a designated boat driver who can collect you if you get in trouble. Study the types of sharks you may encounter before the actual dive. Some are friendlier to humans than others.
In the Water
Once in the water, if you are diving where there are known sharks, swim directly and quickly towards the reef. Lingering on the surface may become dangerous. Once on the reef, if you are swept away by a current, get to the surface as quickly as possible and get the attention of your boat. If sharks appear, do not thrash around. Stay calm. If a shark nudges you, use protected skin to thump, kick or prod it away.
If a shark does approach you in a remote area, it is probably because they are as interested in you as you are them. In waters that are well-dived and sharks have been hand-fed, sharks are likely asking for handouts. If they do not get them, disappointment may make them aggressive.
They Know the Time: So Should You
Dive during the day near coral reefs. Sharks found there are only dangerous when provoked. Also, don’t provoke them. The potentially dangerous sharks you may find on coral reefs, like Tiger sharks, tend to avoid divers. Dawn and dusk are dangerous times for shark encounters. Normally apathetic sharks may become more aggressive due to feeding times.
Underwater Photography Requires More Skill than Wedding Photography
Taking photos of sharks should probably be left to experienced divers because there is much to know before taking a camera under water. For example, the cameras themselves may increase danger. Underwater cameras give off electrical signals that sharks pick up on and may mistake for lunch.
Also, once a photographer finds a shark, care must be taken to move through the water gracefully. If the shark is also moving normally, more than likely there is no threat. However, if the shark moves erratically or abruptly, arches its back, points its head upward, or lowers its pectoral fins, the diving photographer may be in trouble. These are all fighting postures and have been followed by shark attacks.
Swimming With Dolphins, or Becoming Dinner?
Although swimming with dolphins may be top on many of our bucket lists, it’s not as safe and serene as it may seem. Dolphins and other marine mammals may react to their human sidekicks in such a way as to attract predators. Sharks may decide to check on the commotion and, perhaps, attack the humans.
If you opt to take the risk, be sure to wear proper gear designed for smooth swimming: fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit. Also, be absolutely sure you have someone in a boat nearby who can snatch you out of the water in any signs of trouble. One good indicator is watching the behavior of the dolphins or other marine life. If they leave the area, you leave the area. Be ever on the lookout, in every direction, for signs of sharks. If they do come near, do not thrash around.
Shark Facts: They Can Help
Just as Jaws fiction caused panic, shark facts can help ensure safety. One way this is possible is through the SharksCount Program meant to allow experienced, recreational divers become scientists with the goal of increasing knowledge about the submerged lives of sharks.
Through the use of free tools such as regional shark identification guides, shark sighting logs and advice from program experts, the sightings data collected by these citizen scientists can give researchers valuable local shark facts which can be used to improve environmental protections for them. The program’s motto: We’re counting sharks because every shark counts.
Great White Shark Facts
Did you know that the coloring of Great White Sharks serves more of a purpose than elegant looks? The coloring actually helps them blend in with their surroundings. Called countershading, the white belly camouflages them from being detected from below against the sunlight coming through the water’s surface. From above, their gray backs help them blend with the colors of the dark ocean waters below them.
Great White Sharks are apex predators and the ocean is their home. They are the world's largest predatory fish, reaching up to 21 feet in length, the size of a substantial sailboat. These sharks have the power to launch their massive bodies out of the water and out-swim even the fastest of humans. These regal creatures earn some of the fear they strike in our hearts. They definitely earn our respect.
Unfortunately, respect is not always given. In fact, it has not followed too many laws surrounding the hunting of these creatures. The number of Great White Sharks in the North Atlantic Ocean have declined by 79 percent since 1986, by best count.
In the Pacific, specifically the central Californian coast, the Great White Shark population is estimated at just 219. With numerous shark sightings of late, it may seem like a low number, but each individual Great White’s dorsal fin is distinct—like human fingerprints. Scientists have been able to show that the same Great White off the coast of California has been sighted many times over the last few decades.
Other Shark Facts
Sharks do not have little beady black, villainous eyes. In fact, they have beautiful blue eyes. And their eyes are much more interesting than human eyes. For example, unlike human eyes, sharks’ eyes hold a layer of mirrored crystals behind the retina. This allows them to see even in low light and dark murky water, ten times better than humans do. So, don’t get lost in those enormous baby blues, that shark’s had eyes on you long before you realized it.
Another shark fact, they must keep swimming. Swimming allows them to breathe. Sharks swim and open their mouths to allow the water to flow across their gills. If this movement stops, they suffocate.
Humans have been fascinated by sharks probably since the first person spotted one while fishing. Shark facts, myths and legends have dominated our popular culture in the last forty-plus years since we first heard the ominous music telling us there was something big and gray with a lot of teeth coming for us from under the water. We have watched numerous sequels to the first Jaws movie.
We have watched satire with Sharknado and its sequels. We have watched countless hours of shark documentaries on the Discovery Channel, where over the last few decades, watching Shark Week has become as big an event for some American households as watching sports playoffs or Hollywood award shows Some of us will take this awe of the shark one step further and dive into the deep to watch them up close. And, that's good, as long as we are respectful of them in their home and use common sense about our visit.