Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Is It About Shark Attacks?

Stephen Schafer, 38, was killed while kiteboarding in Florida yesterday.  He was attacked by sharks, apparently at least 2 of them.  A lifeguard was able to reach him and pull him to safety while he was still alive and conscious, but he lost consciousness before they reached shore and was pronounced dead at a local hospital.  This story made all of the national news outlets and some international ones today, and was the most popular story on Google News.

What is it about this story that is so compelling?  It's not just this one -- there have been a number of instances over the years where fatal or near-fatal shark attacks made national headlines.  Discovery Channel sponsors "Shark Week" on a regular basis, with a lot of time devoted to shark attacks.  "Jaws" is now so much a part of our culture that even people who have never seen it know about it.  We are fascinated by the danger of sharks.

The fact of the matter is that fatal shark attacks are really rare.  The most fatal shark attacks in a single year ever recorded was 16 in 2000.  Less than 5 fatalities a year is more typical.  Shark attack fatalities in Florida are even more unusual.  Since 1990, there have only been a total of 5 deaths in Florida.  Clearly our fascination with shark  attacks is not because they represent a major danger to us in our daily lives, even if we swim in the ocean quite a bit.

I would suggest that what pulls us in about stories like this one is the interaction between humans and animals.  In most places in the world, people do not put themselves in situations where dangerous animals can randomly attack them.  Few of us, for example, go hang out near a pack of lions.  If someone is killed by a lion, therefore, we don't really identify with the risk that person took. 

Sharks, however, are different.  We willingly place ourselves in the ocean with some frequency.  When someone is attacked by a shark, we can imagine that it could happen to us, and we are alarmed by the appearance that there isn't much we can do to avoid it.  It's a random risk that we take when we swim.

The death of Mr. Schafer is awful, and that rarity and awfulness is also part of what makes the story sensationalistic.  I just hope we don't lose sight of reality while we're remarking on this incident.  The chances of this happening to us -- to anyone -- are incredibly small.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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