When Shark Attacks Aren’t ‘Attacks’ At All

Written by on September 17, 2014 in Other News, Sharks

Early last year, we shared a report examining the problems with the way we describe human-shark interactions. No matter what the situation is, if a human and a shark are in the same place at the same time, we call it a “shark attack,” even if a shark just bumps a surfboard.

Great white shark. Photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenbondy/2145763683/">Ken Bondy</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>.

Great white shark. Photo credit: Ken Bondy via photopin cc.

In the report, Dr. Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney, and Dr. Robert Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Florida, show that the term “shark attack” is often misleading and is contributing to our biased perception of these creatures. They proposed a new classification system to describe human-shark interactions more accurately.

The suggestions for new classification terms are much more specific and would foster better discussions of shark incidents. The categories are as follows:

  1. Shark sightings: incidents where sharks are seen near people but there is no physical human-shark contact
  2. Shark encounters: incidents where physical contact occurs between a shark and a human or the object (surfboard, kayak) holding that human; includes “close calls” like a shark bumping into a human
  3. Shark bites: incidents where a shark bites a human and results in minor to moderate injuries; very different from a “shark attack” which can only be classified by qualified experts
  4. Fatal shark bites: incidents where a shark bites a human and results in death

This report comes to mind after a few “attacks” that weren’t attacks at all made headlines.

First: “Great White Shark Attacks Kayakers In Plymouth
The scenario: Two “experienced kayakers” took a trip out “to see the seals just offshore and were not worried about recent shark sightings in the area.” So, we know that these kayakers are aware that the beaches have been closed lately due to shark sightings — sharks that are drawn closer to the beach because of the booming seal population. (Maybe putting oneself between the sharks and their favorite meal at sunset isn’t the best idea.) A great white came from beneath the kayak and bit it. The women were tossed from their boats, but were left uninjured. The kayakers did note that “they should not have been near the seals and want this to be a lesson to others.” Perhaps the lesson should be that this incident shouldn’t be called a shark attack. No one was hurt, and the shark left the scene immediately after determining that the kayak was not, in fact, a tasty seal.

Whale shark up close. Photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/otolithe/258409258/">Olivier Roux</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>.

Whale shark up close. Photo credit: Olivier Roux via photopin cc.

Second: “Insane Whale Shark Crash Attack!
This one isn’t exactly similar, except that in no way should this incident be classified as an “attack”. A couple of spearfishers (who had baited the water) had an interesting encounter with a curious whale shark. Since whale sharks lack the fierce teeth of great whites, and are actually filter feeders, it seems unfair to call this incident an attack. Sure, whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean, but they are certainly not interested in consuming humans. Besides, interactions with marine life is a risk you take when you scuba dive, spearfish, or swim…particularly if you provide good-smelling bait.

Perhaps these latest encounters will remind us that “not all shark ‘attacks’ are created equal.” Making a simple change in how we speak could have a big impact on how we react to shark encounters and, hopefully, will begin to change the way we perceive sharks.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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