Commonly known as the icon of fear, the great white shark is, sadly, a victim of entrenched stereotyping and Hollywood drama. Being the ocean’s Apex Predator, perhaps there is sound reason for the fear they incite, but how much of it is fact over fiction?
In 2016, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) reported 154 alleged shark attacks worldwide. Upon investigation, 84 of these cases were confirmed to be unprovoked attacks, with the remaining 70 incidents comprising of 39 provoked attacks, 12 boat attacks, one involving post-mortem bites, and the rest were either regarded as not involving a shark, or had insufficient evidence.
Out of the average 100-plus annual shark attacks worldwide, about one-third attributed to great whites. Most cases are not fatal, and new research had found that great whites are “sample biting” out of natural curiosity before releasing their victims. In an article from British newspaper, The Guardian, John West from Taronga Zoo, Sydney explains that great white injuries usually range from minor teeth marks to slashing-type wounds. “However, in these interaction, it would seem that sharks are not intent on feeding on humans and may find human flesh unpalatable. While they do bite people, they rarely eat them,” says West.
Most of the time, shark attacks occur due to humans – particularly surfers – being mistaken for prey such as seals or sea lions. When sharks hunt, they adopt an ambush approach called the Polaris attack. They prowl on the bottom, looking for prey before they barrel out to the surface and attack their chosen target.
But don’t be mistaken, great whites are not homogeneously savage, and are not likely to attack a human. Their behaviour changes depending on motivation, hunger levels, and even the time of the year. Given their unpredictability, quantifying their behaviour had proven difficult, but white shark researchers have become so familiar with their subjects that they can instantly indentify a shark based on it’s appearance and behaviour.
In an interview with Tower Magazine, Dr Rachel Robbins, the Chief Scientist of Fox Shark Research Foundation, explains, “They all seem to have their own little personality. They’re not just this mindless eating machine that people think they are. We have ones that are more curious or more nervous around us than others, while some are really cheeky and others really aloof. It’s just interesting the personalities they have.”