Sharks: Myth vs. Fact

September 18, 2017

Sharks have terrified and mystified humans since we first ventured out into the ocean.

Our longstanding fear of sharks has always been evident in literature, and in countless movies and TV shows – perhaps most prominently in the movie “Jaws” and Discovery Channel’s popular “Shark Week” series. While the media loves to play up our apprehensive feelings towards sharks for the sake of entertainment, this month is a good time to remind ourselves of the truth behind these misunderstood predators. With July 14 being Shark Awareness Day and Shark Week launching on July 23, we bite down on some common myths about sharks and the real-life facts about these fascinating ocean creatures.

Myth: A Shark Will Attack Me If It Sees Me

Fact: You Have Minimal Chances of Being Attacked by a Shark

On the long, long list of animals that are more likely to bite and kill you than a shark are hippos, dogs, cats, and even other humans. You’re also more likely to be killed by lightning, a falling coconut, or a popped champagne cork than a shark, despite millions of sharks and humans sharing the same water every day. Most sharks are more than happy to avoid us, and in those exceedingly rare shark “attacks,” it usually a case of mistaken identity; a shark in pursuit of its preferred prey – usually fish, rays, or seals – will accidentally nibble on a human, almost always letting them go when they realize what they’ve done.

Myth: Sharks Are Dangerous to Humans

Fact: Humans Are Much More Dangerous to Sharks

That characteristic outline of a shark or the distinctive shape of a shark dorsal fin may trigger a feeling of fear in most people, but going by the numbers, the shark has much greater reason to be concerned about you. After all, humans kill more than 100 million sharks per year, whether for sport or commercial purposes or just out of spite. Many are killed inhumanely, such as in the barbaric practice of shark finning, where sharks fins are cut off, and the shark is tossed back alive into the ocean to drown or starve. On the other end, sharks kill fewer than six people worldwide every year, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File. That’s six to more than 100 million. From the shark’s perspective, we humans are much scarier than any movie monster in existence, Jaws included.

Myth: Sharks Are Mindless Killing Machines That Only Think About Food

Fact: Sharks Have Shown Surprising Intelligence

Sure, sharks may not hold a candle to intelligent marine mammals like the bottlenose dolphin, but recent research has shown sharks to be social, curious, and exhibit other signs of intelligence that set them aside from other fish. They will commonly approach divers and boats simply to investigate, and can distinguish between different people. Sharks also prey on other intelligent animals, including seals, dolphins, and octopuses, and to do that, they have to operate at a similar mental ability. Scientists have even seen sharks cooperate during hunting behaviors, working together to ambush smaller more agile prey like seals or to overcome larger prey like whales.

Myths: Sharks Are Gigantic Toothy Meateaters

Fact: Sharks come in all sizes and eat all kinds of food

You hear the word “shark,” and you probably picture some enormous monstrosity on the constant hunt for seals and large fish, but in fact, sharks vary widely in size and preferred diet. We have seven species of sharks here, and only three of them are particularly large. Our sand tiger sharks in Islands of Steel and the sandbar sharks in H-E-B Caribbean Sea can each grow over six feet in length, and the Blue Hole holds two medium-sized nurse sharks, but in Saving Sharks you’ll find the much smaller epaulette, horn, Port Jackson, and white-spotted bamboo shark. These species can be less than two feet long, and many of our guests get to pet them every day. There are more than 400 species of shark in the world, and the smallest species, the dwarf lantern shark, is a mere 8 inches long. While some sharks do prey on fish, rays, seals, and other prey, many others feed on plankton, krill, or even algae. Only about a dozen are considered large and aggressive enough to be potentially dangerous to humans. But even size is no indicator of a threat. The world’s largest shark, the whale shark, feeds on some of the ocean’s smallest species, krill, and is almost completely harmless to humans.

Myths: Sharks Aren’t Endangered

Fact: Sharks Are In Danger of Going Extinct

In a 2009 report, the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated that one-third of open ocean sharks are threatened or near-threatened with extinction due to overfishing and some other threats, including loss of habitat, climate change, and getting trapped in fishing gear. In fact, the two largest species here, the sand tiger shark and the sandbar shark, are vulnerable in the wild for many of those reasons. Sharks are slow-growing species that live a long time and don’t often breed, which makes the loss of a single shark all the more tragic since they take a long time to repopulate. As more and more sharks die off, their extinction is looking like a scary possibility. And with sharks out of the picture, things could get bad quickly.

 

Myth: Sharks Are Better Off Gone. I’d Feel Safer Swimming!

Fact: Sharks Play a Crucial Role in Our Environment

If you’re willing to go without sharks, you might also have to go without seafood and who knows what else. Like all ocean life, sharks play a critical part in the ocean’s food chain, and without them, the ocean’s delicate ecosystems could quickly fall out of balance. Sharks help control fish populations, and without them, certain fish species would die off while others would increase in number. In turn, other ocean life that depends on fish could be wiped out. Algae blooms could also skyrocket in the absence of fish species, increasing the toxins in the ocean and destroying coral reefs plus adding more carbon to the atmosphere. Because ecosystems are so complex, it’s difficult to tell exactly what would happen without sharks, but it’s certain it wouldn’t be good for us or the ocean as a whole.

 

Myth: Sharks Don’t Need My Help

Fact: Sharks Need Help Now More Than Ever

So now that you know sharks are worthy of a little more love than we give them credit for, how can you help them? Well, there are a few easy ways. One is to work against their primary threat, which is overfishing and shark finning. You can sign this petition to tell the world that shark finning isn’t ok, and commit to not using shark products like shark cartilage and oil. You can also reduce, reuse and recycle to keep trash out of the ocean and support sustainable seafood since ocean pollution and irresponsible fishing are among the biggest threats to sharks. Overall, you can spread awareness that sharks aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be, and tell people how much we need sharks to have a healthy ocean. Of course, you can always see our species here and learn more about them, whether in Islands of Steel, the H-E-B Caribbean Sea, or in our shark conservation exhibit “Saving Sharks.” You can also explore the complex nature of some of the world’s most strange and mysterious ocean species in “Shark: A 4-D Experience,” currently showing in the Whataburger 4-Dimension Theater.

We know it’s fun to be scared by monsters, but the shark frightens people far more than it deserves. This Shark Awareness Day, try and change your mind about sharks and get to know these amazing animals a little better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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