About 100 years ago, the general consensus was that sharks couldn’t kill people. Really: The historian Al Savolaine says scientists and doctors believed sharks’ jaws and teeth weren’t strong enough to break human bone.
Then came the summer of 1916.
Over the course of 12 days, there were six shark attacks along the New Jersey coast, and they contributed to a fear of sharks that has permeated our culture ever since.
Savolaine is a historian in one of the towns where there were attacks: Matawan, New Jersey. He says when the first attack happened, people thought it might have been perpetrated by a giant sea turtle.
That first attack happened on July 1, 1916, to a swimmer off Beach Haven, New Jersey. Just like in the movie that would build our shark obsession — 1975’s “Jaws” — officials “didn’t want to hurt local tourism, so they didn’t advertise it,” Savolaine said.
The series of attacks ended with another scene reminiscent of “Jaws,” except even more unlikely, because it took place in Matawan, which is 1.5 miles off the ocean. Savolaine says the shark swam up a tidal river and attacked one young boy in a group who were skinny dipping. The other boys ran naked through the town calling for help, and a group went down to the river to investigate.
Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, dove in, found the boy’s body, but then was attacked by the shark as well.
At the end of the 12-day streak, four people had died.
“This started the cultural fascination with shark attacks,” Savolaine said.
But after the attacks, interest in sharks eventually waned.
“Time passes and people get less concerned,” he said. “What really got people interested was the novel “Jaws” and the movie the following year. After that, a lot of people were afraid to go out in the ocean. And that got people thinking about sharks, so then they remembered that brutal shark attack in 1916 along the Jersey Shore. People started looking back and researching and it stimulated interest.”
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It’s an interest that has held steady ever since. Rationally, however, the fear of sharks makes little sense, says David Ropeik, an expert on risk analysis and Harvard professor. He likes to point out that more people are attacked by cows than sharks.
“We take daily risks all the time, we cross the street, we use a cellphone when we drive, we have unprotected sex,” he said. “Our brain doesn’t even do a risk analysis, you just think, ‘Oh that won’t happen to me.’ You don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’ll fall out of bed and hit my head.’”
That’s what Ropeik calls “optimism bias,” where the risk is far off in the distance and “we tell ourselves if we think about it at all, that won’t happen to me.”
But shark attacks don’t usually fall under the “optimism bias” category, he said. Maybe when someone first books a beach vacation, he isn’t thinking a shark attack could happen. But once he’s standing in the sand, ready to set foot in the water, “optimism bias changes to something called loss aversion, where we over weigh the downside of possibilities,” Ropeik said.
“It’s easy to be optimistic when it’s off in the future, but now your butt is on the line, now you could die, and we revert to caution,” he said. “I know I probably won’t get eaten by shark, but it would be really bad if I do, so statistics go out the window.”
Other factors that play into our irrational fear of sharks are that we dread the pain and suffering that would come with dying by a shark attack.
“The more pain and suffering along the way to getting to being dead, the scarier it is,” he said. And there’s the lack of control we feel over when a shark might strike.
“You’re on the surface of the water and it’s dark under there, you can’t see, and not knowing is powerlessness,” Ropeik said. Even if you’re scuba diving or snorkeling in clear water, he said you know a shark can swim faster than you, so you still don’t feel in control.
Ropeik also says media coverage of shark attacks is to thank for our continued obsession. He calls that “availability awareness,” meaning “the more it’s on our radar screen, the more prominence it holds on our risk radar.”
As a former television producer, he understands that rare and violent stories get more attention and media outlets know people will pay more attention to “stories about the possibility of our death.”
But, he said, there’s a downside to the overexposure. When our brains are saturated with fears about unlikely things such as shark attacks, we don’t pay as much attention to safety precautions we actually should follow — like wearing sunscreen, for example.
“What we are aware of either from personal experience or the media is what fills up our risk radar screen, which has only so much room on it,” Ropeik said. “So when there are lots of stories about sharks, that’s going to grab up room that could have gone to something else.”
There’s another downside to the shark obsession, said James Sulikowski, a professor in the Marine Science Department at the University of New England. That is that historically, people have been less interested in the conservation of sharks because they’ve been portrayed as villains.
“Most people don’t understand sharks are like us, they grow slowly, live long lives and have very few offspring, so they’re very susceptible to fishing pressure,” he said.
However, that’s changing, Sulikowski says. Science has made people aware of how important sharks are to the entire marine ecosystem and has made them care more about protecting them.
Still, he says sharks are fighting a battle other threatened species don’t have to fight: negative publicity.
“We still need to keep getting the importance of sharks out because every time there’s a shark attack, everyone freaks out,” he said.
He hopes people can “take a step back and think about what the statistics really are.”
For example, he said, you’re more likely to be bitten by another person on a New York City subway than be bitten by a shark.