In a country seemingly full of all sorts of dangerous creatures, both on land and below the surface, the Australian Great White Shark manages to inspire a considerable amount of fear and loathing with the general public in our land down under.
Referred to locally as White Pointers, that intense reaction has developed because when a Great White does attack a swimmer, surfer, spear-fisher or a diver the result can be horrendous and result in a gruesome death for the victim – so the fear side of the equation is very easy to understand!
However, the loathing part is much more nuanced and largely results from the way the Australian tabloid media treat these attacks, which are almost guaranteed to make the front page and lead the nightly “news” on television.
The thing is that a shark attack provides an instant boost in circulation while a horrific one, where a death is involved, produces a huge spike in ratings. Compare the report by Australia’s Sydney tabloid the Daily Telegraph on the tragic loss of Japanese surfer Tadashi Nakahara with that of the equally tragic death of to see what I mean…
The movie Jaws was largely responsible for establishing the bad reputation, but the sensationalist treatment of shark attacks by the news media, combined with the many television “documentaries” made about them (which usually aim to scare rather than educate the viewer), has firmly entrenched the overall perception.
The reality however is significantly different and the Australian Shark Attack File data compiled by Sydney’s Taronga Zoo provides a much clearer picture.
2015 was a “bad year” with 22 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks in Australia, compared to 11 such encounters in 2014 and significantly above the decadal average of 13.
Of those 22 attacks in 2015, 1 was fatal and 14 resulted in injuries – 10 of which were classified as “severe”, meaning the victim was bitten.
To put those numbers in perspective on average 8 rock fishermen drown and 23 scuba-divers die each year in Australia.
So, given the approximately 100m “visitations” that Surf Life Saving Australia estimate take place in our waters each year by swimmers, surfers and divers – the reality is that the risk of being a victim of a shark attack is well over 50m to 1…
Even then, the chances of being attacked by a Great White are even more remote as the data from Taronga Zoo indicates that most attacks are from Bull Sharks – but data like that does not sell newspapers or make the evening news!