Sharks. There are a few different kinds but basically they’re all the same (except for that weird one with the hammer-shaped head). Scary, aggressive, over-sized creatures with razor sharp teeth that will bite you in half the moment they spot you in the water. One shark’s just as bad as the next because they’re all mindless killers and a menace to humans. Right? Wrong!
Years of programming from media outlets looking to boost their audience and advertising revenue has led to widespread hysteria and misconceptions about sharks. It didn’t start with Jaws – there was already a pervasive deep-seated fear of sharks – but Jaws did intensify the hype, repeating the same simple message over and over: sharks are dangerous, sharks attack humans, sharks are killers. But the truth is that there are over 470 species of sharks – with new species being discovered every year – and barely a handful of these have ever attacked a human. Many people have never even seen a picture of most of these sharks. The only photographs most people see of sharks are those shots of great whites with their mouths gaping open alongside the latest shark attack story.
We have been brainwashed about sharks. We’ve been fed an incredibly skewed narrative that focuses on isolated and extreme examples of human-shark interaction. In reality most unprovoked fatal attacks come from just three species – the great white, bull and tiger sharks – with a smaller proportion of mainly non-fatal attacks coming from a handful of other shark species, such as the oceanic whitetip, shortfin mako, lemon, blacktip reef shark and a few more.
The stereotypical image of sharks is wrong. It’s wrong because it only focuses on a small subset of the hundreds of shark species. It’s wrong because it obsesses over extreme examples of shark behaviour. And it’s wrong because it anthropomorphises shark behaviour and often doesn’t take into account human behaviour, both in the immediate and wider context – the human may have entered the water without understanding either the risks or shark behaviour – and the behaviour of humans as a species may be behind a recent slight rise in the number of attacks.
In the same way that erroneous and exaggerated portrayals of ethnic groups can lead to racist stereotypes, the incessant repetition of one story that sharks kill humans leads people to hate and fear sharks, and it makes them believe that all sharks are the same. It leads to a prejudice against all sharks. It turns people into sharkists.
So how do you stop “sharkism”? The same way you stop any kind of prejudice – with education. This is one thing we can all do something about. Most of us have access to the internet and a wealth of information – we can start by educating ourselves, and by doing our best to educate people we know. Those of us who are in the teaching profession can give the younger generation a more balanced view of the fascinating behaviour of sharks. Most importantly, perhaps those in the media can take a step back, stop giving undue attention to shark attacks and instead focus more on equally interesting and powerful stories that teach the public more about shark behaviour and shark conservation.