Friday, January 13, 2006
Great white shark story
Since A shark tour group attracted that great white shark off Haleiwa a
couple of weeks ago, people have been e-mailing and talking to me about
sharks [see last week's Ocean Watch column, "Meeting
with great white a great thrill"].
One woman told me, "After seeing 'Jaws' I never put a foot in the water
again." I hear this often and am always astonished. How, I wonder, can a
31-year-old horror movie cause so many people to make such a big
At the other extreme are people who not only put their feet in the water
with sharks, they lay hands on their skin. Clients watched the great
white from a cage, but the leader got out and swam with the big fish,
touching it several times.
Do I think petting a great white shark is dangerous? people want to
know. Yes, I say. And I wonder, What makes an experienced diver get out
of a cage and touch a 17-foot great white?
Researchers in the science of risk management also have questions about
how people judge risks and make decisions, and studies in this field
have produced some theories. The simplest is survival. Our brains are
wired to fear first, think later.
A portion of the brain called the thalamus reacts immediately to threats
by releasing emergency hormones that cause us to run or fight. Thinking
comes afterward with a slower part of the brain, the cerebral cortex.
Too much thinking, though, can be dangerous. A Harvard risk analyst
found that some people decide what kind of lifestyle they want and then
make up reasons to justify the risks that go with it.
Take commuting by bicycle. Those who like it say it is cheaper than
driving, good for the environment, relatively safe if wearing a helmet
and provides much-needed exercise.
Traveling a mile by bicycle, however, is 14 times as likely to be fatal
than traveling a mile by car. Because the cyclist wants to ride, he
believes he is much more in control than he really is.
Now we're getting somewhere. People who claim to stay out of the water
for fear of sharks probably didn't like the ocean in the first place.
Like the cyclists, they chose a lifestyle, terrestrial in this case, and
then used "Jaws" to warrant it.
The shark lover is like the cyclists, too. He really, really wanted to
swim with that shark, and defended doing so by noting the shark was
calm, and therefore, believed a close encounter would be safe.
Fulfilling the dream was apparently worth the risk.
Another reason fear of sharks is so widespread, risk analysts say, is
because of the media coverage that results from an incident. When people
hear about an attack over and over, it's easy to jump to the conclusion
that sharks are knocking people off left and right.
They are not. An average of 33 people get bitten each year in U.S.
waters out of about 2 billion beachgoers.
Deciding which risks to take in the ocean, or anywhere, is complicated
and personal. But don't take it too seriously. "The ultimate risk is
life," risk analysts joke, "and that has a 100 percent chance of leading