During the summer, I spend at least two entire days a week at the beach. And at least a third of that time is spent actually swimming in the ocean. I’m not telling you this to brag, but as a way of explaining why my fear of shark attacks is so . . . let’s call it developed. And it really is a fear, which is a rare emotion in an age in which belonging to a certain social milieu guarantees that primal experiences give way to the duller sensations of dread and ennui.
There aren’t many other things that I’m afraid of. I’ve had typhoid. I’ve fought in the same war twice. I’ve experienced my share of fist fights, accidents, and cataclysmic events. And I don’t believe in the Devil. But sharks seem to occupy some strange borderland between the world of actual and preventable danger and the darkened recesses of our imaginations. They aren’t something you can completely avoid except by not going in the ocean. They’re invisible and move inside the invisible. Like snakes or handguns, their purpose is neither hidden nor adorned.
But that’s just poetic language to describe something that’s visceral. Close your eyes and imagine a shark attack without using language at all. Unless you can taste that bitter twist of adrenaline in your mouth, you’re not doing it right. It’s that same fear that has been — no apologies for the pun — fed upon by popular culture and mythology for millennia.
The most obvious example from contemporary culture would be Jaws, both the movie and the Peter Benchley novel. And while the story is pretty fantastical, what many people don’t know is that it’s based on actual events. Over a 10 day period in 1916 along the Jersey shore there were five attacks, resulting in four fatalities and one serious injury. The culprit was assumed to be the great white shark that was caught two days after the fifth attack in a freshwater creek with a human rib and a child’s shin bone in its stomach. The attacks stopped after it was killed.
Okay, so all of this is terrifying and yet I still swim. For two reasons:
1. Only existential fear can make you value your life. Which is a very dramatic way of saying fear puts things in context. I’m not talking about lame-ass fears like wearing a bad shirt or tweeting something stupid. I’m talking about the same kind of bodily fear you feel when you skydive or fight someone. It’s a necessary experience to burn some of the frivolity off the surface of life.
2. Shark attacks are super rare. According to Oceana, a conservation group, the chances of actually being killed by a shark are 1 in 264.1 million. Your chance of being attacked at all is 1 in 11.5 million. Compared to your chances of drowning, at 1 in 3.5 million, a shark attack is nothing to be afraid of. While fewer than 20 people a year are killed by sharks, somewhere between 20 and 100 million sharks die every year as a result of fishing, according to National Geographic. Sharks obviously have more reason to fear us than we do them. Despite what the movie posters told you, it’s safe to go in the water.