Great White Sharks: Fact vs. Fiction

By guest blogger Kathryn Hodgson

There is growing worldwide fascination with — and a love for — sharks, and quite rightly so. Great white sharks, which are often thought of as terrifying killing machines, are particularly charismatic. There is a great deal more to these magnificent animals than meets the eye. Did you know that their eyes are not actually black? They’re actually midnight blue, and express deep curiosity and intelligence. With some of these common perceptions and misperceptions in mind, let’s take a look at fact versus fiction when it comes to this iconic species.

Fact or Fiction: Great white sharks like to eat people.

Fiction: Great whites eat marine mammals, smaller sharks, rays and other fish, not people. Their diet varies according to their geographic location, the time of year and also the stage of the shark’s lifecycle. I have seen great whites ignoring rays when they’re focused on hunting young fur seals in South Africa. They are selective hunters and they are by no means interested in eating people. When a great white does “attack” a human, it is almost always a single bite and then the shark moves away. Sharks investigate novel objects with their mouths, just as babies and puppies do, and their “bite and release” behavior is not an attempt to devour a human. Unfortunately, what is essentially a gentle, investigatory bite in shark terms can result in serious injury or death for a flimsy human being.

The International Shark Attack File keeps in-depth records of shark and human interactions around the globe and, in 2014, only three people died from being bitten by a shark. That figure includes all shark species, which is estimated to be 510 at present, and is staggeringly low when you take into account the hours spent in the oceans by millions of water users, as well as the damage human beings visit upon sharks.

Fact or Fiction: Great white sharks are primitive and stupid.

Fiction: This species of shark has been around for approximately 11 million years, and where other species have perished, great whites have persisted and continued to sit atop the ocean food chain. They are the ultimate intelligent, adaptable predator, exhibiting various hunting strategies depending on where they live. They navigate long distances around the globe, sometimes following the precise same route each year. They also exhibit social behaviors and use body language to communicate with one another.

Fact or Fiction: Great white sharks have no personality.

Fiction: Having spent many hours at sea with these sharks, I know a number of individuals by name. Each shark exhibits preferences and unique behaviors, and each has a distinctive personality. Certain sharks came close to the boat to investigate the seal dummy that we placed in the water, whereas others were only interested in the yellow float on a line and ignored the tuna head attached to it. One particular shark liked to pause next to the dive step and observe what was occurring onboard, and yet others took a great deal of time to gain the confidence to come anywhere near the boat. They are as different from each other as humans are from one another and their personalities are a constant source of fascination and amusement.

Fact or Fiction: Humans kill 70 million sharks per year for a bowl of tasteless soup??

Fact: I wish it were fiction but this is sadly fact, and numbers may even be higher. Sharks have far, far more to fear from humans than we have ever had to fear from them.

After working as a great white shark wildlife guide in South Africa, Kathryn Hodgson decided to create her own marine conservation organization, Friends for Sharks, to help raise awareness about the plight of sharks. She delivered more than 82 conservation lectures in eight countries during 2015 as part of a charitable world tour.

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