Sharks in the Media

by Finlay Mackay

by Finlay Mackay

Human fear + $ = Trouble for sharks

The film Jaws was so successful and frightening because its plot and imagery hook into our primal fears – to be chased by a wild animal and to be grabbed by something lurking in the dark. Add to that sensationalistic reports of shark attacks in the news media and it is easy to understand why so many people hate and fear sharks.

However, Jaws is not necessarily to blame. It’s a well-crafted piece of fiction. A thriller. It was never intended to teach us about sharks.


What you should know when watching shark films

∇  Sharks do NOT attack blindly every time they see a human. Sharks also do NOT stalk humans. If they did we would see several attacks on every beach every day of the year. Just about everyone who has ever been in the ocean has been near a shark whether they knew it or not. Sharks prefer seals, tuna, and other high fat prey.

∇  Sharks are NOT serial killers, mindless eating machines or swimming garbage cans. Some sharks will only eat once or twice a week. Lemon sharks, for example, eat less than two percent of their body weight per day. Most shark species are highly specialized in what they eat.

∇  Sharks are NOT “bloodthirsty.” Sharks much prefer the taste of fish and will be attracted by fish blood and oil, not by mammal/human blood.

∇  Sharks DO NOT try to get inside shark cages to bite humans. When you see a scene where a shark runs into a cage, gets stuck in ropes and thrashes around or gets stuck inside an opening of a cage, it is a dangerous situation for the shark, created by humans. Bait gets dragged to attract the shark closer to the cage. Sometimes the speed at which the shark follows causes it to ram into the cage because it is focused on the bait. Sharks cannot swim backward so they thrash to get away from the obstruction. 

∇  Sharks DO NOT try to get inside your boat, and they do not remember individual people and then plot revenge against them and their family members. Sharks are intelligent animals, similar to some bird and mammal species, but they don’t have the complex emotions that drive humans, such as hate and revenge.


Sharks, unlike humans, do not kill for fun.

∇  Scenes and images of shark’s gaping mouths are not aggressive attacks. Cameras and bait are used to get the shark to bite something, i.e. the camera housing. Photographers work long and hard to get a shark to come out of the water to grab the bait. The bait then gets edited out of the image. Unless you see footage of a natural prey/predator incident, such as a shark grabbing a seal, or a reef shark hunting fish, toothy images are mostly created with a great amount of manipulation.

∇  There is no such thing as “shark-infested waters.” A healthy reef system includes top predators. A “normal” underwater scene MUST include sharks, so one can hardly say it is “infested”. Shark populations are on a steep decline. The new normal has become to see reefs and shore areas without any sharks, therefore the sighting of several sharks is hyped as shark infestation.


TV shows love to hype the term “shark-infested waters.”

∇  Scuba diving with sharks is not inherently dangerous and does not require a great act of bravery. Scuba is a great way to experience the Underwater-world. Sharks are usually intimidated by divers and keep their distance unless bait is involved. Diving with sharks is not an adrenaline filled crazy stunt. When it is presented in that way it is nothing but a hyped scenario to boosts ratings. Most people that spend time in the water will attest to the fact that it is quite calm and peaceful down there. Quietly observing wildlife requires some skill and tact but the result is that animals will be less nervous and more accepting of the “alien” visiting their vicinity. With that said, sharks are wild animals and apex predators and should be respected as such by giving them their space and distance. 

∇  Few shark species are dangerous. Most sharks are harmless to humans. Of all shark species, about 80% grow to less than 1.6 meters (5 feet) and are unable to hurt people or rarely encounter people. According to the International Shark Attack Files, of shark attacks recorded since the year 1580, only 10 of 400 species were involved in unprovoked fatal attacks. Bull, Tiger, Great White sharks account for almost all attacks--and many of those attacks are assumed to be accidental. Odds of someone in the United States getting bitten by a shark are about 11.5 million to 1.


You are more apt to be killed by a cow, lightning bolt, vending machine, power tool or court-ordered execution than by a shark. 

∇  Humans attack sharks. The greatest enemy of sharks are humans. Millions of sharks are being slaughtered every year to meet the demand for shark fins and shark meat. About 11,000 sharks per hour, 250,000 sharks per week, 70–90 million sharks per year are killed by humans either through targeted fishing for fins, meat, and other products or through bycatch of other fisheries.


Who really is the dangerous animal?

Think about what kind of programming you let your kids watch. Educational programs about sharks and the ocean will help them shape a correct image and will prevent them from having live long, irrational fears. And remember - it is the ratings of viewers that drive content in the media. Use your power by NOT watching programs that exploit sharks, and by watching and commenting positively on the programs that get it right.

Stefanie Brendl