When I was 17, my parents gifted me a snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys as a graduation gift. We traveled to Key Largo, where I joined a bunch of strangers on a pontoon boat headed to John Pennekamp State Park. As a lifelong animal lover and someone fascinated by all things ocean, I was eager to plunge myself into the stunning world of a coral reef.
There was just one problem — the problem that plagues every ocean swimmer’s mind.
Would there be sharks?
The fact is, there are not even 200 shark attacks every year around the world‚ and on average, only 4–5 of those are fatal. And most attacks are survivable if the victim can obtain medical help quickly. (It’s worth noting that a majority of attacks happened when the shark was provoked.) Countless marine biologists have observed that when sharks bite humans, they often swim away. Apparently, we don’t taste very good to them.
There are exceptions, of course. The infamous Jersey Shore attacks more than 100 years ago frightened the nation and were the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws and, of course, the classic film of the same name. Before these attacks, most scientists saw sharks as timid, relatively harmless creatures. The biggest problem with sharks was that they got tangled up in fishing nets. Millionaire Hermann Oelrichs was so convinced that sharks never bit humans that he offered a hefty reward for anyone who proved him wrong.
After the Jersey Shore attacks, aka the 12 Days of Terror, public perception of sharks swung to the other side of the pendulum. By some accounts, Jaws solidified many people’s fear of sharks. Horrific images of shark bites and the seemingly random nature of the attacks didn’t help.
On my snorkeling excursion, I saw many beautiful fish and corals, but zero sharks (and much to my disappointment, no dolphins or sea turtles, either). Still, I experienced a moment of fright when I first hit the water. Accustomed to playing in the waves or swimming around a chlorine-drenched pool, I immediately felt terrifyingly tiny, suspended in an endless realm of water and toothed creatures.
I imagine that a shark of almost any size would have compounded that feeling.
Still, my fascination with marine creatures doesn’t stop at sharks, and so I diligently watch Shark Week every year, as well as my favorite movies about killer sharks. I take comfort in knowing that most sharks aren’t as massive and human-hungry as the…