On paper, it makes very little sense to be scared of sharks. When you get into the water, you have a far better chance of drowning than you have of being attacked by a shark, let alone being killed by one. Nearly 360,000 people drown each year, while only 12 die every year in shark attacks.
David Shiffman, a marine biologist at the University of Miami, put it this way: “I recently calculated that Jack Bauer has killed more people onscreen in 24 than every shark attack worldwide since 1580, when the species of shark was identified.” Mosquitoes are far more dangerous. Deaths caused by mosquito-transmitted diseases kill around 725,000 people a year.
But there’s nothing dramatic about a mosquito bite. Usually, you don’t even notice it’s happening. Then, a few weeks later, you die from a horrible illness. We tend to blame the illness, not the mosquito. The shark, on the other hand, lurks beneath us in the depths of the sea, and without warning attacks from below with rows of jagged teeth, ripping limbs from the body and turning the sea red.
It’s an image that sticks with you a little bit more than a zit-sized bug bite, so naturally we’re far more scared of sharks. Technology and science are helping to change that, though. New innovations could protect swimmers from shark attacks, which might allow us to overcome our fear and focus on things that are infinitely more dangerous than hungry sea predators.
After a spate of shark attacks on the western coast of Australia a few years ago, scientists developed wetsuits that either hide the swimmer from sharks or ward off the animals. The wetsuits were based on a relatively recent discovery that sharks are, in fact, color blind, which would make them much more susceptible to sea-colored camouflage.
The developers of the “invisible” suit also created wetsuits with patterns and colorings similar to those of fish that sharks would know to avoid — usually because they’re poisonous. While the sharks would be likely to see this wetsuit, they would also be likely to avoid it.
Obviously, a big part of protecting ourselves against sharks is understanding them. To some extent, this means managing our fear to the point where we acknowledge they aren’t as big of a threat as we think they are, but it also means learning how we can exploit elements of their biology and behavior so we’re able to avoid attacks altogether. Aside from learning about their color blindness, we’ve also discovered that they’re more likely to swim away if struck in the nose, eyes, or gills, and that they’re attracted to sudden thrashing movements.
A shark isn’t a T-Rex — it can see you regardless — but it’s attracted to movement.
Another company has developed a device called the “Shark Shield” that emits a low-frequency electric pulse to scare the shark away. Shark Shield has been around for a while and sells devices for use on kayaks, dive kits, and fishing boats.
The Shark Shield is based on the understanding that sharks have pores under their skin that they use to detect electromagnetic fields produced by the muscles or heartbeats of other living things. It’s actually a tool they use to hunt prey, but the Shark Shield uses it against them. It should be noted that while the Shark Shield appears to have worked in Africa, it hasn’t been as effective in Australia, strangely.
Seriously — Twitter could save you from a shark attack. Because of the relatively high number of attacks in recent years, western Australia has been trying virtually every method to keep people away from sharks. This has included an ill-advised shark cull, which resulted in the killing of around 50 sharks. This is obviously not ideal — humans kill on average over 11,000 sharks an hour, which seriously threatens the continued existence of these tremendously important apex predators.
But to Australia’s credit, they’ve also been trying methods that better allow humans to coexist with sharks. One such program is Surf Life Saving Western Australia, which, with the Western Australian Fisheries Department, attached GPS transmitters onto some 350 sharks. The sharks are ones large enough to be deemed a threat, and SLSWA monitors for their presence near beaches. When one appears, they tweet out its location, which beachgoers or lifeguards can then respond to.
Ultimately, the best way scientific advancements can help us overcome our fear of sharks is by putting the numbers into perspective. You’re far more likely to die because of all the french fries you’re eating than you are of becoming a shark snack. You’re far more likely to die because you always forget to apply sunblock than you are of being involved in a shark attack. Really, most of the ways you can die are more likely than death-by-shark.
Sharks are certainly dangerous — no marine biologist would argue otherwise — but the best approach to lowering our risk of a tragic shark encounter is to try to understand them, learn to respect them, and then work to coexist with them.