On June 30th, while vacationing in the Turks and Caicos, a 28 year old man was bitten by a large shark. This particular attack got my attention in a hurry. For the first time in my life, a friend of mine was bitten by a shark. Obviously I know some shark biologists who have been bitten while handling sharks in the field, but that isn’t what happened in this case. This victim was simply snorkeling during a vacation. He agreed to answer some of my questions about the incident, and prefers to remain anonymous.
“I was snorkeling off of a reefy outcrop on a pretty desolate beach in the Turks and Caicos,” he said. ” I swam out past some waves breaking and approached the rock cliffs. After snorkeling around for a bit I saw an area that had waves breaking across a low point in the reef cliffs, so there was a lot of bubbles and turbulence making it hard to see. I wanted to dive underneath the bubbles to get a view of what was on the bottom so I took a deep breath and dove. The only thing I remember is briefly seeing the bottom and thinking it was cool. The next second felt like someone took a baseball bat and whacked me on the shoulder. I turned around thinking I ran into a rock but saw no rock and felt nothing with my hands. The next thought that crossed my mind (only because I watch hours of Shark Week) was ‘This is what shark bites supposedly feel like’.”
Because he knows me and several other marine scientists, the victim was more educated about sharks than most people. He wasn’t afraid of them before this incident.
“ I was never kept out of the ocean because of a fear of sharks. I’ve always known they were there and just assumed that if I wasn’t doing anything to purposefully provoke them then the odds were in my favor,” he said.
As is often the case, the attack didn’t change his view of sharks.
“I always have and still do believe that we need to keep these amazing animals alive and well in the ocean. They are key predators in a very dynamic and sensitive ecosystem, so if we continue to overfish them or kill them out of fear we will surely alter things we never intended to. I really think things need to be done about shark finning above anything else involving sharks. Hopefully more people will see their important role in the ocean and maybe they will start to feel differently about needlessly killing them. If anything the bite has made me more in tune to shark conservation and public perception…I think the shark was just confused by the bubbles and probably didn’t know what I was, took a bite and then swam away”
It’s one thing to hear about a shark attack in the news when the victim is someone you don’t know. While most of us sympathize to an extent with any misfortune that befalls a stranger, a tragedy affects us much more when someone close to us is the victim. In the past, my reaction to hearing about a shark attack in the news was to criticize the media for promoting needless fear by focusing on an extremely rare incident and to point out that people are, on average, more likely to be killed by a lightning strike or a bee sting than a shark attack. While these facts remain true, I now know what these attacks feel like for the family and friends of the victim. While attacks are statistically unlikely and that media coverage of them is harmful to the marine conservation movement, the victim and their loved ones have experienced major emotional trauma. Now that I know that my friend is ok, I hope to learn from this incident and to become a better advocate for sharks because of what I learn.