Summer of the shark?

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water...it is.

Suzanne Miller

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Topics Politics

Two years ago this month, Americans started to panic. They feared an attack, somewhere off the east or west coast. But this scare had nothing to do with terrorists – Americans were fretting about sharks.

Every summer in the USA, stories about shark attacks make people wary of planning a beach holiday. But the media often make the attacks seem more numerous than they really are. All it takes is one dramatic story, and the panic begins.

In 2001, there was the case of eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast in Pensacola, Florida. Jessie was swimming with his family in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida in early July, when a bull shark more than two metres in length bit into his thigh and his arm. Jessie’s uncle grabbed the shark’s tail and dragged it towards the beach, but by then Jessie had lost his right arm (1).

Passers-by resuscitated Jessie and a medical helicopter transported him to the nearest hospital. During this time, two men had killed the shark in order to retrieve Jessie’s arm, which surgeons later reattached to Jessie (2).

It was quite a story, which quickly spread through the USA. For weeks, there were news updates on Jessie’s recovery and advice on sending aid to his family (3). But the story didn’t stop there: for the next two months, US news was inundated with shark tales.

After Jessie, a New Yorker hit the headlines when he lost his leg in a shark attack in the Bahamas (4). Then a shark bit a surfer’s ankle in the same waters where Jessie had been attacked (5). In mid-August 2001, Florida state officials said they had spotted hundreds of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico (6).

There followed a weekend of intense reporting, when three men and three women were bitten by sharks, within two days, all at the same beach (7). None of the injuries was serious, but four major TV networks reported live from the area. And as camera crews arrived, tourists fled (8).

In September 2001, there was a fatal shark attack. A 10-year-old boy’s left leg was badly attacked at Virginia Beach in Virginia, and he died in hospital the following day (9). Two days later, a 28-year-old man died in a shark attack in Avon, North Carolina, and his 23-year-old girlfriend had her foot torn by the shark (10).

On 4 September 2001, Time magazine published a special report headlined ‘The summer of the shark’ (11). Indeed, it wasn’t until 11 September that the shark coverage finally, and abruptly, ended.

After this summer of media reports about sharks, many Americans believed that the number of attacks in 2001 was the highest ever. In fact, the number had fallen from the previous year. The International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History reported 76 worldwide shark attacks in 2001, with 55 of those in the USA, while in 2000 there were 85 shark attacks around the world (12). Worldwide fatalities as a result of shark attacks also decreased, from 13 in 2000 to five in 2001 (13).

Statistics show that 60 people worldwide were attacked by sharks in 2002, three of whom died. Forty-seven of these attacks occurred in the USA, six in Australia, three in Brazil, two in South Africa, one in Costa Rica, and one in the Bahamas (14).

Australians also have shark panics, especially in the popular Sydney Harbour. Shark sightings in the harbour caused quite a stir in the months leading up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which were scheduled to start with athletes jumping into the harbour for the triathlon event. Despite statistics showing that the last person killed by a shark in Sydney Harbour was in 1963, Olympic organisers took every precaution to reassure the athletes (15).

There was another Sydney panic in March 2002, when boaters spotted what they thought was a great white shark. Experts concluded that a great white in Sydney waters was ‘unlikely, but not impossible’. Nonetheless, stories spread of children and boaters being chased by the shark, though nothing was confirmed (16).

The main character in Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, made into the 1975 movie, is a great white. The story played on human fears about sharks, and the myth that sharks actually enjoy eating humans. Research shows that shark attacks on humans are more likely a case of mistaken identity – such as human for seal – than a proper attempt at feeding.

Now 25 years later, Benchley wishes he had never written Jaws: ‘What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh.’ (17) Hopefully, his new expertise will help some beach holidaymakers swim a little easier this summer.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering

(1) Saving Jessie Arbogast, Tomothy Roche, Time, 4 Sepember 2001

(2) Saving Jessie Arbogast, Tomothy Roche, Time, 4 Sepember 2001

(3) A second look, Andrew Chang, ABC News, 26 July, 2001

(4) Conflicting accounts, Associated Press, 8 August 2001

(5) Expert confirms surfer was bitten by shark, Gary Tuchman, CNN News, 20 July 2001

(6) Hundreds of sharks spotted off Florida, CNN News, 14 August 2001

(7) More shark attacks in Florida, ABC News, 19 August 2001

(8) Area’s shark attacks attracting national attention, Mark Johnson, Daytona Beach News Journal, 21 August 2001

(9) Shark kills boy, ABC News, 2 September 2001

(10) Breathing easier, ABC News, 5 September 2001

(11) Why can’t we be friends?, Terry McCarthy, Time, 4 September 2001

(12) Unlikely hazard: as summer nears, researchers say shark attacks are inevitable but rare, ABC News, 21 May 2002

(13) International shark attack file 2002 shark attack summary, South Florida Aquatic Environments

(14) International shark attack file 2002 shark attack summary, South Florida Aquatic Environments

(15) Olympic monitor, Leora Moldofsky, Time, 10 April 2000

(16) Great white panic grips Sydney, Patrick Barkham, Guardian, 7 March 2002

(17) Jaws author bites back to save great white shark, Philip Delves Broughton, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 April 2000

Also read:

How to avoid shark attacks, Time

My swim with the sharks, Jeanne Dequine, Time

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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