From gods to monsters: how did we come to fear the shark? (2023)

The most haunting of our imagined monsters remain hidden as they stalk us, striking when we least suspect it, while we are relaxing, or at play. The now-extinct megalodon roams the ocean unseen and unseeable, except in our imaginations. And it often surfaces in our consciousness when we are at rest or play by the seaside. The reason that the great shark holds such a chilling grip on us must be sought in the very long history of the interaction of sharks with people. Is there anything more spine-chilling than the thought of being eaten alive?

There is a contentious theory that our species went through an aquatic phase during its evolution, according to which the long periods our ancestors spent in the sea foraging for marine life account for our hairlessness, our thick layer of subcutaneous fat, and our abilities to swim and hold our breath. If the theory is true, then perhaps this primeval foray into the water has something to do with our deep fear of submerged predators.

More certain is the idea that at least 50,000 years ago, people were making heroic oceanic voyages, for example, to reach Australia. In those days, well before the widespread despoliation of the oceans, these first intrepid mariners must have crossed waters that often roiled with sharks and their prey. Perhaps they even lost the odd companion to snapping cartilaginous jaws. Whatever the case, as soon as our ancestors began plunging into the sea to travel or to exploit it for food, they exposed themselves to the risk of encountering sharks.

From gods to monsters: how did we come to fear the shark? (1)
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Archaeological excavations have provided some convincing evidence that sharks have preyed on humans for many millennia. In 2021 researchers announced the unearthing of the skeleton of a shark-attack victim in a Japanese cemetery that was almost 3,000 years old. The unfortunate person was most likely a fisherman and his bones bore almost 800 marks made by serrated teeth – most likely from a tiger shark or a great white. The marks included deep incisions, punctures, striations and cuts, and by mapping them on a three-dimensional model, researchers were able to tell that the victim was alive when attacked. One of his hands was cleanly sawn off, possibly the result of a desperate attempt to break free from the predator. And both legs had been severed from the torso in the attack, one of which had been placed upside down on the corpse prior to its burial.

As gruesome as the find is, we are fortunate indeed to have such evidence of a prehistoric shark attack, first because buried shark-attack victims must surely be in the minority, as the bodies of many victims are never recovered, and second because it’s rare even for a buried body to remain intact for 3,000 years.

Over time, many human communities have struck a balance between fear and respect for sharks, and in some of the most oceangoing cultures of the world, both humans and sharks thrived. Because sharks play vital roles in marine ecosystems, this live and let live association facilitates healthy, stable food chains, which bring real benefits to humans as well as to the environment.

Many of the communities that maintain a respectful relationship with sharks have incorporated the creatures into creation myths as ancestors or gods. In Māori mythology, Parata is the shark god who lives in the depths of the ocean. With each breath, he controls the oscillation of the tides. The Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa is the protector of fishermen, shielding them from the jaws of sharks and securing their safety at sea. Sharks can be attracted to canoes and can even swim ahead of them in ways that make it appear that they are guiding the humans in the vessel, and of course, sharks know where the best fishing grounds are, all of which may have influenced Fijian beliefs.

In Hawaii it was believed that the ancestors could manifest in the form of a shark and that sharks would guide canoes and herd fish into nets. In Solomon Islands, sharks steer the transition from the living to the spirit world. There, bodies of the dead are laid on reefs at low tide, to be eaten by sharks, allowing the spirits of the deceased to join the ancestors. On Anaa Atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago, warriors take the name of the oceanic whitetip shark, and in large areas of Polynesia sharks that live in the open ocean (some of which are known man-eaters) are seen as taboo and cannot be killed or eaten.

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Following the adoption of Christianity in Oceania in the early 1800s, many of the beliefs protecting sharks broke down and some previously protected species were intensively fished to the point that they vanished from the once well-frequented waters. Only in the most remote and uninhabited of places, such as Caroline Island in Kiribati, or the privately owned Clipperton Island, can the full glory of sharks before human hunting decimated them now be appreciated. In a spectacle reminiscent of the Pacific before human exploitation, hundreds of blacktipped reef sharks can be seen in the lagoon shallows there, while numerous larger sharks patrol offshore. All are so unafraid that they will bite at the paddles of rowers making for the shore and even nip at their feet as they wade on to the beach.

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The oceanic whitetip is a deepwater species of shark that has been severely affected by the breakdown of pre-Christian taboos that protected it. It’s a slow-moving, slow-growing species with a low reproductive rate and as it was killed in increasing numbers by newly minted Christians, it went into swift decline.

One favoured method was to travel far out to sea and to use a goat as a lure. When the oceanic whitetips approached, the fishermen would lasso the sharks by the tail, one by one, as they approached the bait.

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As Europeans embarked upon the age of sail, voyaging to evermore distant parts of the globe, they encountered predatory sharks, in many cases for the first time. Early English voyagers referred to them as sea-dogs, but eventually the term shark, derived from the Dutch word for scoundrel, was adopted. The spectacle of both a shark attack and a heroic rescue is eerily yet beautifully conveyed in a 1778 painting by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, held in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It depicts a ghastly event that occurred in the 1740s, when 14-year-old orphan Brook Watson imprudently dived off a small boat he was working on in the Havana harbour, Cuba.

Within view of several horrified onlookers, a panicked Watson was dragged underwater by a huge shark that had latched on to his leg. He resurfaced once, only to be pulled under again by the shark. A crew member finally chased the shark away with a pole topped with a large hook. The creature left bearing Watson’s right foot and onlookers were able to rescue the lad. Amazingly, Watson lived to tell the tale.

From gods to monsters: how did we come to fear the shark? (2)

Australia is world-renowned for its shark attacks and while a number of attention-grabbing attacks by great whites have occurred in recent years, records of encounters with various shark species go back to the very first European explorations of the continent. Shark Bay in Western Australia is renowned for its enormous tiger sharks. Their powerful jaws are able to crack the shell of a sea turtle with ease and the creatures have a fearsome reputation for eating anything they can get their jaws around, including the most indigestible of garbage. Their ferocity was made plain by François Péron, the zoologist on the Baudin expedition, who in 1801 wrote:

The eastern side of Fauré Island [in Shark Bay] is infested with sharks remarkable for their size and voracity. One of these monsters almost devoured Lefevre.

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Such brazen attacks are extremely rare today, yet they abound in the annals of early Australian exploration. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that either large sharks have become much rarer or more cautious over the years.

An era swiftly passing?

Sharks are far slower to reproduce than many bony fish.

Having few young, they are unable to replenish their populations as quickly as humans can decimate them. Tragically, the peak of trophy hunting that followed in the next century could not have come at a worse time, coinciding with a dramatic reduction in food sources for the great white shark. Populations of seals and whales had crashed due to industrial-scale human hunting and by the 1970s many previously abundant seal and cetacean species were on the brink of extinction.

From gods to monsters: how did we come to fear the shark? (3)

The psychology of trophy hunters reflects the ethos of an era that is, I hope, swiftly passing, one in which humans are seen as pitted against nature, rather than being part of it. Perhaps western society was misguidedly searching for a reason to conquer the frightening beast, to take back the power that sharks seem to have over us, at least when we enter their realm. Instead of preserving carcasses in formaldehyde, the urgent need is to preserve the last of the great living predators, so that stability and productivity can be brought back to ecosystems.

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Why do people fear sharks? ›

“Evolutionarily, we're hardwired to pay attention to things that can harm us, which is one reason why I think people actually like to be scared of sharks,” explains shark biologist Chris Lowe.

What is the human fear of sharks? ›

Galeophobia is characterized by an overwhelming and persistent fear of sharks. Those experiencing this condition may lack the ability to rationally perceive the danger sharks pose to them, leading them to participate in behaviors to avoid these animals.

What is fear of sharks called? ›

Galeophobia, or the fear of sharks, comes from the Greek words “Galeos” sharks and “Phobos” fear. Symptoms may include anxiety with elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, shaking, sweating, nausea, or dizziness.

Why why why are sharks so scary? ›

Most of all, we're afraid of losing control. If you're swimming in shark-inhabited water, you don't want the jaws of a mysterious predator to clamp down on you and determine your fate. "The idea of being munched on by an animal that is in control is another factor," Ropeik says.

Should humans be afraid of sharks? ›

Most sharks are not dangerous to humans — people are not part of their natural diet. Despite their scary reputation, sharks rarely ever attack humans and would much rather feed on fish and marine mammals. Only about a dozen of the more than 300 species of sharks have been involved in attacks on humans.

Can sharks sense human fear? ›

Their ability to sense these movements may lead people to believe that they can sense fear but ultimately the movements help them locate their prey while they're hunting. Sharks can sense the earth's geomagnetic field, but they can't sense fear.

Why should humans not be afraid of sharks? ›

Sharks typically avoid attacking animals larger than themselves, as the risk of injury is too great. For most species, this means that humans are automatically off the menu. Research shows that even larger sharks like great whites and bull sharks do not intentionally hunt people for food.


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