Are You Afraid of Shark Bites?
Have you ever been floating in a crystalline sea with the sun caressing your skin when your inner iPod starts playing the theme from “Jaws?”
Now shark bites are exceeding rare. But still the thought of some sleek, silent attacker waiting to take advantage of your blissful ignorance is… well it isn’t quite the perfect vacation daydream.
Or course if you admit your uneasiness, someone is sure to pipe up with the fact that you that you have a greater chance of being killed by lightning than of being killed by a shark. I guess that’s supposed to be reassuring.
Someone more versed in shark lore might even tell you that according to National Geographic, toilets injured 43,000 Americans in 1996 while sharks injured just 13.
Okay. But Americans use toilets a whole lot more often than they swim in the ocean. So sharks really only have access to a limited number of American buttocks. So how comforting is this when you are bobbing on the waves like an hors d’oeuvre on a waiter’s tray?
So while I love to swim in the waves, I never completely relax.
I have my shark coping strategies…
One is choosing to swim in waves crowded with other people. Because what are the odds that a shark would choose me out of all of the other tasty morsels out there? I try to tell myself that I have more chance of winning the lottery than of getting eaten by a shark.
But still… Then I try to convince myself that sharks are lazy. Maybe they will just grab the first meal they encounter. And since they are probably coming from the deeper water, I just need to stay a little bit closer to the shore than at least one other person.
This is kind of like the produce guy who puts last week’s potatoes at the front of the bin before he adds any fresh potatoes. Right?
The problem is that I always choose my potatoes from the back of the bin. How do I know that sharks haven’t figured out that strategy too? I had a friend, Tim, who was a search and rescue swimmer in the Navy. He told me about a harrowing rescue that required him to jump from a helicopter into the Coral Sea. He had to cut an ejected fighter pilot out of his parachute and pull him out of the tangled mess to open water where he could breathe.
The helicopter circled back around and lowered a harness on a rope. Tim strapped the pilot into the harness to be hoisted to safety. Meanwhile Tim tread water waiting for the harness to be lowered again.. into a part of the ocean notorious for hosting three different species of man-eating sharks.
The Navy helpfully supplied its search and rescue swimmer with “shark repellent.” Tim told me that it wasn’t really a repellent. It was shark sex hormones. I didn’t repel the sharks, it just confused them into wondering whether they should eat you or make love to you. I guess it’s up to the individual sailor to decide which event is preferable.
Shark experts often say that the real problem is that sharks have poor eyesight. When they are looking up at a surfer, the silhouette of the surfer’s legs and hands showing past the oval shape of the surfboard looks surprising like a seal. Seals are a legitimate food source for sharks.
Whether sharks can or cannot see well is still being discussed. But it generally agreed that when a shark bites a surfer, he almost always spits the mouthful back out.
Pity the poor shark. He’s looking forward to a nice, fat, juicy seal and what does he get? A mouthful of fiberglass, polystyrene foam, and some weird land mammal that is too full of bones. GROSS!
So sharks don’t actually want to eat humans. They are just misguided. But how can we help them get back to nice healthy shark- snacks that don’t involve us?
Scientist have been trying for years to find a chemical that would repel sharks, but they have only had limited success. But recently a whole new non-chemical approach is evolving: designing wetsuit and surfboards to look unappetizing.
One approach, by SAMS Shark Attack Mitigation Systems, uses extreme contrasting color in a wide-striped pattern on wetsuits and surfboards to imitate an unpalatable or dangerous food choice. Unfortunately the surfer looks like an escaped convict whose jail clothes have shrunk in the wash. While the look seems to deter sharks, further research might show that it also deters members of the opposite sex, an unintended side-effect.
Another more promising approach, called “Cryptic Pattern,” prints a watery camouflage pattern onto wetsuits. Being nearly invisible from below, What could be more hip? I expect to see one of these wet suits in the next James Bond movie.
This could be the perfect solution to my nagging fear of sharks. I plan to get my own watery camouflage wetsuit for my next ocean adventure. If that “Jaws” theme song starts playing it will be me sneaking up on an unsuspecting shark.
For your own fact checking pleasure see