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by Chris Petry

As we head off to the beach in droves, let us not forget the formidable threat that lies just below the surface of the water: human beings. Gotcha. I bet you thought I was going to use your captive time to rail against the dangers of the ever-popular, prehistoric, razor-teethed denizens of the deep we call sharks, but no! This article will not cater to the fear and paranoia that surround our bad-rapped fishy friends, but try to better educate us all of their historical significance and ecological necessity, whilst also not attempting to gloss over their potential for harm as you wade into shallow waters off your chosen coast.
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: sharks are old. Very old. In fact, their presence on Earth predates not only Tyrannosaurus Rex but trees. That’s right; sharks are older than trees. The current scientific timeline seems to indicate that sharks began to prowl the ocean depths over 400 million years ago. Sharks, appearing as we know them today, are still in the neighborhood of 195 million years old.
Okay, what makes a shark a shark? Sharks are first and foremost fish. Sharks do not have mammary glands, hair, or lungs. They do, however, give live birth to shark “pups.” Well, over half of them do. Some species do in fact lay eggs. So, while it’s tempting to lump sharks in with whales and dolphins, this would be a categorical error. Those animals do have lungs and require visits to the surface of the water to gain fresh air. Some whales and dolphins also have hair, having begun their evolutionary journey as land mammals. Whale sharks, while possessing many of the features associated with a whale (most notably their massive size and less-carnivorous appetites) are true sharks. This makes them the world’s largest fish. Sharks are also cartilaginous. This means they lack bones. In fact, the only part of a shark that’s really made of bone-like material is their teeth. All the better to chomp you with, my dear!
Sharks are very important to the ecosystem. First off, they are apex predators. While this sounds scary, it’s necessary to curb populations. If there were more fish than food, there would be starving fish. See how that works? Luckily for the animals that don’t find themselves in the jaws of a Great White, there are enough resources to enable them to thrive and reproduce. Shark health is our health. If sharks are survivng and thriving it means their oceanic environment is more likely to be healthy and humans and animals alike depend on it.
I guess it’s time we address the elephant… er… shark in the room. Yes, sharks are capable of great violence. We’ve all seen Jaws based on the classic Peter Benchley novel. The one thing to keep in mind, however, is this: in the year 2022, there were only 57 unprovoked shark attacks reported globally. Only five of those attacks were fatal. Let’s put that in perspective. The world population exceeded 8 billion in that same year. A quick Google search will show that Palm Beach, Florida reports over 9 million people visited their beaches alone last year. Think of all the other beaches in Florida, or up and down both US coasts. Think of the beaches along the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Polynesia, Australia, East Asia, and West Africa. That’s alot of people putting on their “itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini” and very few of them meeting their end via shark attack.
To avoid ending up on the menu, it’s good to consider a few safety precautions before hitting the water. First, stick together. Sharks are less likely to initiate an attack in a crowd of people. They usually go for individuals off to themselves. This info applies to both people and animals but I don’t think seals will read this article. Avoid swimming at night when sharks are most active. Remember the opening scene of Jaws? Yep, that was a bad time to go swimming. Don’t go too far from shore. The further you are from help, the more likely you are to succumb from injuries and blood loss. Sharks, like most fish, have great vision. Great color vision. They like bright shiny colors. They reflect well in water and signal you out. Don’t make a lot of noise or splash about on the surface too much. This emulates the behavior of birds and other animals who make for easy prey. Finally (and I hope I don’t really have to tell you this one) if there’s been a shark sighting in the area, find another beach!
So, pack your picnic basket, load up the cooler, ready the sunblock, and keep your eyes open for ominous fins this summer season. Just remember, the likelihood you’ll fall prey to a shark attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Seems like good odds for a killer tan.