The Great White Shark’s Image Problem

The curious thing about sharks is that the people who have the most to fear from them — surfers, swimmers, paddlers — fear them least.

I was emerging from the subway at West 72nd Street, a couple of years ago, when my father called to tell me that an eight-foot shark had glided under him as he was catching waves at Manly Beach in Sydney. The adrenaline thinned his voice; it took days for the shock to wear off, but he was back in the water the next day. My older brother has had a great white try to knock him off his board with its tail while surfing on a remote beach in New South Wales. (While terrified at the time, he says he remains “convinced of their majesty” and remains an avid surfer.) The Sydney bay where I swim is often crowded with dozens of timid young sharks that leave when fully grown. They do not bother us.

I would be terrified, though, if I sighted a great white. Like that of many of our generation who grew up horror-struck with images of the pink gums of the shark in the movie “Jaws,” it’s a primeval fear that’s impossible to shake. After all, as the words of the trailer went: “It is as if God created the Devil and gave him jaws.” Cue ominous chords.

But in a new book, the Australian author and sea diver James Woodford argues that they just have a public relations problem on an international scale.

Great white sharks, the most terrifying occupants of the oceans, are genuinely global citizens. They travel for thousands of miles, skimming sea floors from continent to continent, wending from Africa to Australia and back again, to the Mediterranean, China, Japan and the Philippines. Scientists call them “the last dragons.” They can grow up to five meters long and live to 70.

The way they rapidly jet from the sea floor to the surface in search of prey is known as a Polaris breach, after the American missiles shot through the ocean into the air by submarines.

And although it is extremely rare, when they do attack and kill humans, it’s global news. The fact that another great white was just caught in nets at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach — the second in a week — prompted international headlines.

But the hysteria surrounding great whites has long outstripped their actual threat and has blinded us to the fact that they are a lot less interested in our limbs than we think.

And an acrimonious debate about shark culling this year after a spate of attacks in Western Australia — seven deaths in three years — exposed a startling truth: Those of us who swim regularly in the ocean, who have had hearts stop as dark shadows fly underneath, or seen fins slice water in the distance, are the ones who have become most aware that we need to take responsibility for the fact that we have entered an unpredictable, dangerous foreign world. And because of this, a glacial shift has occurred in the way we think about great whites; thousands mobilized to protest the cull across the country, urging respect for these astonishing creatures.

They are as misunderstood as they are marvelous, partly because the great white “emerged from a lineage predating dinosaurs and its personality has the ill-deserved reputation of being somewhere between a psychopath and a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang.”

But research has shown that male sharks frequently swim near and around people in areas thronging with swimmers, including Sydney Harbor, without incident.

A Shark Spotters program in Cape Town, South Africa, similarly reported more than a thousand instances of white sharks close to bathers, without attack.

One question Americans repeatedly ask of Australians is: How can you even go in the water? The answer is simple: They leave us alone. Can you imagine the massacres if sharks actually prowled beaches hunting for human flesh?

A recent survey of 557 ocean users in Western Australia found 69 percent had encountered a shark when in or on the sea. The survey, published in the academic journal Australian Geographer by the researchers Leah Gibbs and Andrew Warren, also found 61 percent had encountered a shark in the year before they completed the survey.

As the Sydney-based shark researcher Christopher Neff says: “We are not prey, we are in the way.” Since 1839, only 102 people in the world are known to have died from unprovoked shark attacks. But fatalities have been increasing steadily since the 1900s, as swimming has become more popular and Australia has had the highest number.

Each summer, media reports fuel a low-level terror that generates shark anxiety. Businesses fear it could discourage tourism and some argue it could even lead to childhood obesity as kids are told to stop playing in the sea.

The fact that sharks are not interested in us is almost shocking to contemplate.

We have accepted our “Jaws”-driven phobias as fact.

The cull was conducted from January to April this year. A total of 172 sharks were caught, and 68 were shot. Not one was a great white. Australia’s Environment Protection Authority refused to give the Western Australian state government permission to continue the program, because of concerns about the impact on the great white population.

Scientists cheered: Hysteria makes bad policy.

It would be wrong and foolish to think you could make sharks safe. As Mr. Woodford points out, every shark is a rogue shark. Every one is dangerous “not because of what they usually do but because of what they can do when they make a mistake.”

But on this question, swimmers (those most at risk) align with marine and environmental scientists (those most informed). Those who know the least panic the most.

We would be smarter to try to mitigate the risks by not swimming in murky waters, at dawn or dusk, far from shore, or near schools of fish than to try to kill sharks haphazardly. And the public now supports that.

A poll by UMR Research, a private company, found 82 percent of Australians believe sharks should not be killed, and that we swim at our own risk.

Sharks, who glide in the quiet, still depths of the ocean, like airplanes, loop all of us together: To truly understand them invokes respect as well as fear.

Julia Baird is an author, a journalist and a television presenter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and an author who is working on a biography of Queen Victoria.

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