What’s turning dolphins in South Carolina into half dolphins?

One of the many perks of spending lots of time on boats is that you get to overhear some pretty strange radio conversations. The strangest I ever heard took place in the summer of 2002 in the Gulf of Maine, when the captain of a fishing vessel was calling the Coast Guard to report that he was looking at half of a dolphin swimming around. I was shocked, but the Coast Guard radio operator had apparently heard of this, and replied, “No, sir, that’s a mola mola. It’s a fish, and it’s supposed to look like that.” Everyone on the bridge of the sailing vessel I was on laughed.

I hadn’t thought about the idea of “half of a dolphin” for more than 10 years… until last week, when I saw this photo of an animal which had washed up on Folly Beach, South Carolina, only a few miles from where I used to live (and swim). According to marine mammal expert Wayne McFee of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal and Ocean Science, this is the second time in recent weeks that half a dolphin has washed up on the shores of South Carolina.  Although more than twice the average number of dolphins have stranded in South Carolina this year, seeing two bitten in half ” is an unusual occurrence,” he told me.

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World’s largest group of shark scientists calls on AP and Reuters to resist using the phrase “shark attacks”


The American Elasmobranch Society is the world's oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society is the world’s oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional organization of shark and ray scientists, has issued a resolution calling on the Associated Press Stylebook and the Reuters Style Guide  to retire the phrase “shark attack” in favor of a more accurate (and less inflammatory) wording that is scaled to represent real risk and outcomes. The AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guides are reference guides for journalists and editors which focus on, among other things, reducing the usage of inaccurate and outdated terminology. The latest AP Stylebook, for example, had more than 90 new or updated entries which include encouraging journalists and editors to a stop using terms like  “illegal immigrant“,  “ethnic cleansing” and “homophobia”.

“Shark scientists in the United States and around the world have great respect for the integrity and reporting of the Associated Press and Reuters. We hope they will act on this recommendation and update their style guides to ensure that the public gets the most accurate information in the reporting of these incidents,” said Lara Ferry, President of the American Elasmobranch Society, who sent a formal letter to the AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guide.

Currently, although “shark attack” is associated with an image of a large shark and a human fatality, the phrase  is used by the media as a catch-all to describe any encounter between a human and a shark, even those that don’t result in any physical contact whatsoever. Fully 38% of reported “shark attacks” in New South Wales, Australia from 1970-2009 resulted in no injury whatsoever. This is misleading and facilitates a perception among the public that sharks are more dangerous than they really are, a perception which has negatively impacted shark conservation and management policy.

“The accuracy in media reporting of shark bites and different human-shark interactions is especially important during the kinds of tragic periods we have seen this summer. The public deserves the best information to make sure there is no confusion between very serious and fatal shark bites and minor incidents,” said Christopher Neff, a Ph.D. student at Sydney University.

In a recent paper,  Neff and Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Lab proposed a scaled labeling typology to describe human-shark interactions. This typology covers the full range of these interactions,  including:

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