The Misconceptions of Sharks

Dr. Chris Lowe is a professor, marine biologist and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. Lowe and his students often study marine life like sharks, rays and game fishes by monitoring the marine life’s behaviors and movements. Lowe has been a part of CSULB since 1998 – where he first began teaching and overseeing the Shark Lab.

How do shark attacks occur?

“We break shark attacks down into two categories. One category is called ‘provoked,’ when a person does something to the shark that elicits a response – and that response is usually a defensive response. The other category is called ‘unprovoked,’ where a person is just out minding their own business supposedly and the shark swims up and bites them. We don’t really know why that happens. No matter what people say, the reality is that we don’t really know.”

Are there certain types of sharks that attack people?

“In most cases, at least for provoked attacks, pretty much any shark with teeth. Any shark can bite a person. I think the ones that most people focus on when it comes to attacks are the ones that have large teeth that can remove flesh. The sharks I have in my lab, they all have very tiny teeth. They eat things like worms and clams and pose no threat to people. However, some of the larger ones have really large teeth and can actually do a lot of damage. Even a little shark with those kinds of teeth can do a lot of tissue damage. That group of sharks is pretty wide ranging. It could be in the hundreds of different species that would have the potential to do that. In reality, there’s probably about six or eight species that are responsible for the majority of the bites on people regardless if we understand the reasons.”

What are the species of shark that are responsible for the majority of attacks?

“I would say the top three that most people recognize as being probably the most dangerous to people include the white shark, the tiger shark and the bull shark. It’s mainly those three. After that, there are a handful of other species that have occasionally bitten people but are rare.”

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, which holds the International Shark Attack File, a total of 116 unprovoked shark attacks have occurred in the state of California. This was last updated on Feb. 8, 2016. In the Los Angeles area alone there were six reported attacks, while Orange County had a total of two attacks. San Diego had the most attacks in California with 17, and Humboldt a close second with 15 attacks.

What should somebody do when bitten by a shark?

“The most important thing is that you want the animal to release you. Hitting the shark on the nose, hitting the shark in the eyes, hitting it in the gills – those are all sensitive areas, and quite often, if done vigorously, you can get the shark to release you.”

What should a person do to help a victim of an attack?

“Well, the No. 1 thing is [to] get him back to the beach as quickly as possible. Activate EMS, Emergency Medical Services, and basically try to get that there as quickly as possible. You want to stop the bleeding. Most of the people that die from shark attacks is due to blood loss. You always want to leave the wet suit on because it actually helps hold things together if tissue has been dislodged, and it allows you to put pressure on it. So, let the EMS people worry about taking the wetsuit off; your job is to try to maintain pressure on the wound.”  

How do you prevent a shark attack?

“Statistically, 64 percent of people that are bitten never see the shark coming, so that means that the other 36 percent [of people] see a shark before biting them. In those cases, it could be that they did something and the shark came over to bite them, but in most cases if the shark sees that [you] see them, the gig is up. If you’re moving about and you’re watching the shark, the shark’s not going to come over and try to take a bite out of you [...] because you’re watching it.”

Do sharks like human flesh?

“No. In fact, I think that the unequivocal answer is no. The best evidence that I have for that is nobody would go in the water at Huntington Beach because sharks would be there picking people off on a daily basis. We do not see that. Occasionally, sharks will scavenge on people that are drowned or died for some other reason. It’s very rare that people are bitten and consumed by a shark. Super, super rare.”

Should people be afraid of sharks?

“I would say no. I think we need to respect them just like any other animal. We know that [predators] are important, and we need them in our environment and to keep the environment healthy. They are part of the ecosystem. Sharks are the same way; we need to respect them. They can be potentially dangerous to us, but the probability of being bitten is very low. In a way, I think we created this monster in our minds, and television and media has helped perpetuate that. I think people’s attitudes are changing, which is good. I think people are becoming more sympathetic toward sharks and understanding them due to better education and better science.”