Sharks have had such a bad rap for so long, and it is difficult to imagine a time when the words “shark” and “attack” didn’t go together. But once upon a time, there were “incidents” and “accidents”, rather than “attacks”. Let’s explore the history behind our relationship and interactions with these magnificent animals that have roamed the ocean for more than 400 million years?
Let’s set the record straight
Words matter so I always like to refer to the dictionary for definitions and the origins of words.
Sharks are defined as shark (animal): a long-bodied chiefly marine fish with a cartilaginous skeleton, a prominent dorsal fin, and toothlike scales. Most sharks are predatory, although the largest kinds feed on plankton.
Consulting the very same dictionary a “human shark” is defined as a rapacious crafty person who takes advantage of others often through usury, extortion or devious means.
Well, need we say more?
Turning to the Internet, if you Google “shark attack” more than 93 million results pop up. Google “shark bite” and 34 million results are returned. Now do the same for “lion attack” and “ lion bite”, and you end up with more than 140 million and 38 million results respectively. Strange how we speak of man-eating sharks, but the lion is the king of the jungle and oh-so magnificent… Double standards, one might say.
Jaws, the terror starts
In 1975 Steven Spielberg produced and released “Jaws”, the movie. It was an instant blockbuster. People loved and feared the movie. It went on to gross millions of dollars. At the same time, “Jaws” also set humanity’s fear of sharks in motion. After “Jaws”, people never looked at these magnificent animals in the same way again, and forever going forward sharks and fear have been synonymous.
What most people don’t know is that the author of the book that the movie is based on, Peter Benchley, realised and regretted his inaccurate portrayal of sharks. He became an advocate for the oceans and sharks. In 2000, in an interview with “The Guardian”, he said: “We must not allow just one generation of humanity to needlessly eradicate 400 million years of evolution.” Benchley genuinely regretted writing his hugely successful first novel. He felt that it encouraged excessive fear and unnecessary culls of such an important predator in the ocean ecosystem.
Travelling back in history
In the Western Cape 122 incidents, with 31 fatalities were recorded. In the Eastern Cape, there were 134 incidents, with 23 deaths. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) saw 145 incidents with 45 fatalities. Male victims account for 95% of all recorded bites.
The records and statistics have also brought something very interesting to the fore – it has always been believed that dusk and dawn are the most likely times to have a shark encounter. The records contradict this with most bites happening in the middle of the day, just after lunch. It would seem that the old warning about not swimming after lunch, might be better applied as a warning of shark activity than possible cramps or other health warnings.
Lesley Rochat Photography
Breaking it down: Unprovoked bites 1852 – 1899
The first recorded incident in 1852 took place in Durban bay. A small boat had capsized, and one of the servants decided to swim to shore. He was never seen again. The next record is ten years later, this time in Durban harbour. The victim was bitten badly, but survived. Then, in 1894 in Simon’s Town bay – whalers had harpooned a whale and in the chaos of trying to get there, still alive, bounty secured, the whale thrashed around and capsized the boat.
Most of the crew immediately jumped back onto the boat, while one maverick decided to swim after the harpooned whale to catch it. (We can only imagine what this man was thinking.) Swimming through a sea that has been churned up by a dying, bleeding whale, was definitely not this man’s greatest decision, and it subsequently also turned out to be his last.
Unprovoked 1900 – 1949
The poor man was booked into the morgue still alive but passed away about 15 minutes later. The paramedics were commended for their incredible time efficiency but were urged to in future instead head to the hospital, even if it is just to give the patient some hope. A shark hunting party was sent out, and a couple of days later a shark was caught and killed. It is alleged that this shark still had cloth stuck in its teeth.
In 1920, quite far up in the Zwartkops River near Port Elizabeth, a young lady was floating with her face down in the water. She felt a bump and thinking it was her dad playing a joke on her, and she looked up, quick to realise that a shark had bitten her. She survived the incident and her costume, adorned with a perfect half-circle of shark tooth holes, ending up becoming quite famous and was eventually donated to the Costume Museum.
Unprovoked 1950 – 1999
In 1950, near the Port Elizabeth harbour wall, a man lost two toes after dangling his feet over the side of a boat. Spearfishing, the act of diving, spearing a fish, and then tying a half-dead, bleeding and thrashing fish to your waist, accounts for 35 incidents, with four fatalities. Surfing and other water sports account for 69 incidents, with seven deaths. Eighteen of these incidents took place in the ocean off East London.
In 1976, after watching “Jaws”, a young Jefferey Spence was frolicking in the waters off Clifton. He was acting out some scenes from the movie, and his friends cautioned him against his antics. Well, while splashing around, he was bitten by a white shark. He was saved, and the lifeguards had the opportunity to test out their newly acquired shark bite kits. The ambulance took a whole 30 minutes to arrive on the scene, and Spence was taken to the hospital. He survived the incident. A couple of weeks later, a shark was hunted down in the area and killed.
Unprovoked 2000 – 2019
From here on, the statistics start to look a bit different. During the last 19 years, 49 incidents with surfers have been recorded, with seven fatalities; 5 spearfishing incidents, with two deaths, 11 surf skis bumped and 0 fatalities. Swimmers made up for 12 incidents, with nine fatalities, mainly at Dyer Island (primarily suspected poachers) and Port St Johns.
With the incidents involving surfers nearing the 50 mark, one would think that these wave riders would be deterred from the sport, but the opposite is true. Most, if not all of the surfers who have had encounters with sharks, have gone on to continue surfing and, in many cases, have even become champions of their sport and advocates for the ocean.
Provoked shark bites
The Global Shark Attack Files include 552 reported shark incidents that have been deemed invalid due to the injuries not caused by sharks. In all of these cases, the bites could be attributed to stingrays, toadfish, wobbegongs, surfboard fins, or incidents with shark activity post drowning or death. Two hundred thirty-nine reported incidents were due to disasters at seas, such as sinking ships. There are also reports of 348 incidents of sharks interacting with watercraft, either biting or ramming boats.
All incidents in a captive setting are classified as provoked. Globally, between 1948 and 2019, 34 non-fatal incidents took place in aquariums and ocean parks, many of them in touch pools and involving small children. Between 1961 and 2011, six incidents were recorded in aquariums and oceanariums in South Africa. The most curious of these might be the one that took place at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria when a ragged-tooth shark was being carried in a stretcher and managed to bite one of the people helping to move the shark. A shark, in the heart of a city, thousands of kilometres away from the ocean happened to bite someone – curious indeed.
Looking at the media and the fear that has spread about sharks, it is easy to see why so many people are still uncomfortable with the idea that sharks are not the enemy. But the statistics put things into perspective - we certainly have very little to fear from these animals. Turn the tables, though, and you will very quickly realise that sharks should be petrified of us. Estimates are that humans kill about 100 million sharks each year. That is approximately 11 000 sharks per hour.
“No, the shark in an updated “Jaws” could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors,” Peter Benchley.
There is no way that the marine ecosystem can sustain the onslaught on sharks. We are removing apex predators, which will ultimately lead to the collapse of the ecosystem. When the ecosystem collapses, we will pay the price, because, with such a collapse, we will lose resources that are vital to human, and to the planet’s survival. We often fear that which we do not understand, or which we are told to fear. In the case of the fear of sharks, Hollywood definitely has a big role to play. Somehow, we have been convinced to fear an animal that lives in the ocean and that we need to go out to encounter actively. It just doesn’t make sense. Humans are, indeed, a strange species…