Beady eyes. Rows of rending teeth with serrated edges. Feeding frenzies.
It's no wonder sharks scare us, and Peter Benchley's 1974 novel Jaws and Steven Spielberg's hit movie that followed certainly haven't helped. Even among shark lovers, the frisson of fear an apex predator like a great white dislodges from our subconscious is a big part of the fascination.
But the fact remains that the death of Florida kite-surfer Stephen Schafer on Thursday after being bitten by a shark or sharks off Stuart Beach, Florida, is far more an anomaly than business as usual. So if you're planning a winter get-away to the Caribbean or a trip to the local beach next summer, try to put out of your mind today's news reports of a "ravenous" "swarm" of sharks that took Mr. Schafer's life (frequently accompanied with file photos of gaping-mawed great whites).
A fatal shark attack is vanishingly rare when considered against the tens of millions of people who venture into the ocean each year and the fact that almost always they're in reasonably close proximity to sharks. The folks at the International Shark Attack File report 137 fatal unprovoked attacks – total – by sharks worldwide since 1580.
They also typically seek to use tragedies like Thursday's as teaching moments for the public at large, trying to calm irrational fears that in the past have fueled punitive hunting of these animals. For instance, in the US since 1942, there have been twice as many fatal attacks by alligators (18) than by sharks (9). Man's best friend? He's been responsible for at least 198 human fatalities since 2001 alone. Lightning strikes? There have been 1,930 fatalities in the US since 1959.
Those numbers are pretty much the same around the world, but if you really want to scare yourself, here's a good factoid: statistics in Britain show that roughly 30,000 people die in that country ever year from accidents in the home.
As for the sharks, they're more afraid of us than we are of them. The United Nations estimates that 10 million sharks are killed for their fins – a delicacy in Chinese and other Asian cuisines – each year, and a number of conservationists consider that an underestimate.
And are sharks "ravenous killers" if they do occasionally bite? Usually not. Most shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity – a shark mistaking a surfer for a tasty sea turtle or seal. Most sharks usually bite and then let go, in search of a more usual prey.
In the 1990s when I was living in Indonesia, I had an acquaintance who survived 5 hours in open water after her ferry sank off the coast of Sumatra. Her time in the water was a horrifying ordeal, and she reported being "bumped" by large sharks a number of times while in the water. Terrifying, of course, but none of them elected to take a bite out of her.
Researchers say such bumping is probably a shark's way of figuring out if something on the surface is a good thing to eat.
Mr. Benchley, who passed away in 2006, came to regret writing Jaws, which he felt fed irrational hatred of a fish that does not typically prey on humans. He became a shark conservationist.
"Sharks are much more the victims than the villains," he said in 2000 to a group in Hong Kong. "... You are much more likely to be killed by bees, dogs, bats, and certainly in Hong Kong, automobiles."