A Shark Swimming By Doesn’t Mean It’s Attacking

Two People and a Great White SharkI always like it when I nail a story straight out. And that is certainly true of my article on Monday, Mick Fanning and the Curious Shark. At that point, there hadn’t been any reporting about what experts were saying. But looking at the video and the results, it seemed clear to me that Fanning’s close encourage with the shark was not an attack. Just because a shark swims past a human does not mean that it is attacking. And that was clearly the case on Sunday — although it is not to say that it wouldn’t have been a very frightening experience.

Over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp wrote, That Viral Shark Attack Video Is Everything We Get Wrong About Sharks. As with most things wrong with our ideas about sharks, this seems to go back to Jaws (which is still a great film). That film really pushed this idea of sharks as killing machines. Hooper says, “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.” I suppose we could say the same thing about humans. But it does a great disservice to all creatures — humans and sharks alike.

My perception of Fanning’s interaction with the shark was no doubt affected by my long fascination with sharks. They are amazing animals — and quite smart. I find it especially interesting that great white sharks hunt in different ways depending upon where they are and what the prey is like. That doesn’t describe a killing machine. That describes at least a fair amount of intelligence — adaptability. But above all, my thinking has been shaped by all the very brave people who swim with sharks. For example, the following video is from Planet Earth. These two cameramen are swimming with three oceanic whitetip sharks. They are probably responsible for more human deaths than any other shark. But look at them — they are not mindless at all:

This is why I speculated that the shark who interacted with Mick Fanning might have been checking him out to see if he was something worth eating. But it was clear that the shark was doing just that: checking him out. It wasn’t an attack. But there is another possibility mentioned in Beauchamp’s article: maybe it was just a chance encounter. Marine biologist Alison Kock mentioned, “Based on the footage we’ve seen, we don’t know its intentions. It looks like the shark was trying to get out of the situation as fast as [Fanning] was.” Very possibly! Remember: there are always threats — regardless of how big and dangerous you are.

The down side of all this discussion about this “attack” and the general hysteria we see after any shark encounter is that it makes sharks more at risk. For all the power of the whitetips and great whites, they are classified as vulnerable. In fact, whitetip populations have plummeted. And that would be because of… us. Some scientists now question the whole idea of referring to shark “attacks.” It tends to turn sharks into villains when this isn’t called for at all. In one paper, Christopher Neff and Robert Hueter noted, “Under current labels, listings of shark attack may even include instances where there is no physical contact between shark and human.” Of course, that wasn’t true of the interaction between Fanning and the shark on Sunday. In that case, Fanning punched the shark. Human attack!

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