Why Are We So Obsessed With Sharks?

Shark Week is coming! You're probably excited, and that's kind of strange.
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Shark Week is coming! You're probably excited, and that's kind of strange.


In the wake of the cinematic masterpiece Sharknado, you might find yourself thinking my life needs more sharks. Well, guess what? Discovery Channel’s widely popular "Shark Week" starts up August 4, ready to fill your void. Unfortunately, there won’t be any chainsaws.

But why this cultural obsession with sharks? Maybe it’s some intrinsic pull, the knowledge that sharks and humans split from a common ancestor, thus connecting us metaphysically to these ocean dwellers. Or maybe it’s because they’re really, really cool.

Westerners were more likely to believe in dragons than a great white.

In her book Demon Fish, Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin argues that the shark’s “outsized role in our psyche” makes more sense in a historical context.In Western history, sharks weren’t always seen as mysterious monsters. Phoenician pottery dating back to 3000 BCE displays images of sharks, and, according to Eilperin, Aristotle gave the first accurate description of shark sex. But then came the Middle Ages, when “the Western world forgot that sharks existed.” At banquets, noblemen would take fossilized shark teeth, drop them in their goblets, and claim they were “dragon tongue stones.” Eilperin describes this time period as the total break in our understanding of sharks; Westerners were more likely to believe in dragons than a great white.

Sharks re-entered the Western psyche in the seafaring surge between the 15th and 17th centuries, but Eilperin says they remained a fairly abstract concept to most Americans until 1916, when we started spending lots of time at the beach. That same year a series of shark attacks off of the Jersey shore caused widespread panic.

Citizens demanded that the government “stamp out the shark horror,” and Woodrow Wilson even convened an inconsequential cabinet meeting on sharks. (He still lost votes in the area where the shark incidents occurred.) Sharks were now completely on the radar—scary beasts that the government should take care of but seemed unable to. Eilperin argues that the panic felt in 1916 has continued through today; the unpredictability and seemingly uncontrollable nature of sharks is what scares us the most and what drives our fascination. “We have a primal fear,” she writes, “because they come out of the darkness.”

IN LIGHT OF STATISTICS, our shark fear-obsession seems a bit odd. According to the University of Florida, in 2012 there were 53 shark attacks in the U.S. and seven fatalities worldwide. On the other hand, it’s estimated that an average of 19 people die in the U.S. from dog attacks each year. In Australia, according to The Guardian, “The nation has averaged just over one fatal attack a year over the past 50 years.” Yet Australian officials approved a plan to allow fishery services to kill sharks that appear a threat, despite great white sharks being a protected species in the country's waters.

While we celebrate the “awesomeness” of sharks, humans worldwide kill an estimated 100 million of the creatures every year. More organizations than ever exist to create awareness for shark conservation, but the fact of the matter is that shark populations have declined by up to 80 percent. Is it that, regardless of our knowledge of the necessity of sharks in our ecosystem, we’re still too scared of them to really care? As Western Australia State Premier Colin Barnett said: “We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark. This is, after all, a fish.”

If the necessity of sharks within the ecosystem is a hard sell, maybe a couple of economic points will be more convincing: Whale shark tourism is estimated to be worth $47.5 million annually worldwide. Shark tourism activities bring $78 million annually to the Bahamian economy alone.