Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Shark?

For Shiffman, our failure to conceptualize relative risk is both an ecological and aesthetic tragedy, undermining conservation efforts wh...


For Shiffman, our failure to conceptualize relative risk is both an ecological and aesthetic tragedy, undermining conservation efforts while preventing us from rejoicing in the glory of sharks – with their dermal denticles, their complete lack of bones and their ability to hear a wounded fish from a mile away. The syllogism it implies is comforting: Only fools are afraid of sharks; you are not an idiot; so you are not afraid of sharks.

Outspoken contrasts with a 2005 bestseller, Susan Casey’s “Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.” This one is designed for goosebumps. When two researchers from Casey’s book hop on a boat to observe shark activity, it isn’t long before “the dorsal fin of myth and nightmare rises from below and heads towards them like a sub- German sailor, creating a considerable wake”. The title of the book also plays on our fears, with a slight diversion of meaning; the “devil’s teeth” do not refer to sharks but to the rugged Farallon Islands in California where they congregate.

The dominant shark iconography of my youth (18 miles from the Farallon Islands, by the way) took the form of a bumper sticker from a nearby surf shop. The sticker was everywhere. It looked like a no smoking sign, with a red circle bisected by a slash – but instead of a cigarette, the circle contained the image of a shark. Like any respectable piece of knowledge, it wasn’t what it seemed. The idea of ​​banning sharks like one would ban cigarettes or double parking was a cosmic joke. Surfers wearing the sticker were on the same page: dressing up as prey and paddling through a shark habitat was like signing a liability waiver.

I go to Marconi less often now, but more out of ineptitude than out of fear. Writer and naturalist Henry Beston described the area in 1928: “The peninsula lies farther offshore than any other part of the Atlantic coast of the United States; it is furthest from the outer shores. Beston, who retired to the dunes after his First World War experiences, likened the sound of a rising tide to “the fury of battle”. Sandbars along the coast move on what appears to be an hourly basis, resulting in waves that fend off attempts at coercion. Calculating the coordinates where swell, wind, current and tide harmonize requires granular knowledge reserved, as it should be, for locals.

An application called Sharktivity follows sightings in the area, with the idea of ​​”reducing encounters and promoting safety”. Whenever a white shark sighting is confirmed near a public beach, app users receive a red alert. Some of the tagged sharks have been named. (Agnes, Big Papi, Turbo, Sean.) From time to time, I monitor the app to see where the gang meets, although Sharktivity warns that “THE ONLY WAY TO COMPLETELY ELIMINATE A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A SHARK IS TO STAY ON THE SHORE.”

From Shiffman’s book I learned that death by Carcharodon carcharias and friends is far less likely than most shark media outlets would have us believe. The haunting powers of Marconi’s bar chart have diminished. But maybe that’s because death by shark no longer seems like the worst way to perish, compared to the alternatives. Several times since reading Why Sharks Matter, I’ve replayed the scenario in my head. Floating in salty bliss, I sense an aberrant change in the water molecules. A statistically abnormal large blank arrives. Maybe it’s Agnes. I’m stricken, shocked, and bleeding under a vast, uncaring sky, dying just as I lived: unsuspecting and swallowed up.

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