(Image:: AAP/Rebecca Le May)

If there were a perfect relationship between the frequency of shark attacks and our fear, then sharks would hardly register. The International Shark Attack File, the world’s only scientifically documented database of shark attacks, puts the risk at a puny one in 11.5 million. Using the same data, Australian shark researcher Blake Chapman says we’re more likely to win an Oscar, a Nobel prize or a lotto jackpot of US$1 million or more than to be fatally attacked by a shark.

Many conservationists will tell you that vending machines and coconuts kill more people than the maligned shark. Google it — so are toasters and lightning strikes and other causes of death that would look embarrassing on a death certificate. 

In other words: relax, you idiot.

Many of these claims are dubious. Snopes has thoroughly debunked the coconut thing — it was made up by a British Insurance Company — and when I looked at the last 10 years of data from the US Consumer Safety Product Commission (CSPC), I found zero vending machine deaths. 

But there’s a bigger reason such facts and figures do nothing to soothe our fears about sharks. Over the phone from his office in Oregon City, California, professor Paul Slovic explains that when it comes to assessing risk, we’re a hot mess at the mercy of evolution and rely on gut feelings, emotions and instinct. “The stronger our emotional reaction, the stronger is our perception of risk,” said Slovic. 

But that doesn’t make us irrational, he argues, nor does it mean that all those experts and their armoury of probabilities makes them more rational. In fact, according to Slovic, the way they measure risk, focussing solely on the number of lives lost is too narrow. Most experts draw no distinction between predictable and accidental deaths — or “good deaths” and “bad deaths”. 

“It doesn’t matter if the person who died was young or old or if they were exposed to the risk voluntarily or involuntarily and so forth. There is a variety of assumptions that are being made that these don’t matter,” said Slovic. 

Slovic’s words rattled around my head when I visited 44-year-old Sam Edwardes in hospital. He was bitten by a shark earlier this year while surfing in Byron Bay. 

“I just sat up on my board, and a few seconds later just felt bang, massive hit, from the side … I didn’t really feel pain, but it was like that on me”, said Edwardes, making a chomping motion with his hands.  

The attack, which just missed his femoral artery, was comparatively mild. But he’s also experienced the most horrific kind, too. 

When he was 21, Edwardes and some friends rented a holiday house at Hardwicke Bay on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. One afternoon their friend, Tony Donoghue, went out windsurfing. A couple of hours later, he was still out. As the afternoon crept on, Donoghue didn’t return. 

“We came back from the pub, and were like, ‘Where the hell is he?’ And we were looking, and after about half an hour we were like, ‘Jesus, where the hell is he? We should be able to see him,'” Edwardes recalled. 

They searched along the shoreline but there was no sign of him. Police conducted a full-scale search, but he had disappeared. Aside from a harness and wet suit, no trace of Donoghue was ever found. The coroner later found that teeth marks on those items belonged to a great white and Donoghue had most likely been killed by a shark.

For the next year, Edwardes suffered from anxiety, nightmares, and found it difficult to sleep. At one point, he developed shingles, which he says was because of the mental turmoil he was experiencing. 

“I still find it difficult to talk about,” said Edwardes, looking out his hospital window. “Really, we felt that tragedy. We felt it deep within us. That was hard.”

20 years later, Edwardes and his friends are still deeply affected by the death of their friend. Some are members of Bite Club, a support group for people affected by shark attacks, and are re-traumatised when shark attacks are in the news. 

When I speak to Dave Pearson, who started Bite Club, I ask him why he thinks shark attacks create such a frenzy. After all, according to the experts we are more likely to win an Oscar than be attacked. 

“It’s the fear of being eaten while you’re still alive,” said Pearson. “And I think it’s that that puts the fear into people because it just proves to everyone that we, even though we are probably the apex predator on the planet, there are others that can do us harm that we have no control over.”

Although Bite Club was set up to help people who’ve been attacked by sharks, its ranks have swelled to include a couple of crocodile attack survivors, someone who was attacked by a lion, and a woman who had to lay down and play dead while her pet pitbull chewed her femoral artery. “It’s all the same. You’ve got no control over a wild animal that’s into you. And I think that’s where the fear comes from,” said Pearson.

A shark attack might be a one in 11.5 million occurrence, but fearing such a thing doesn’t make us irrational, it makes us human. 

This is an edited extract from Sharks: A history of fear in Australia by Callum Denness, available now from Affirm Press.

Peter Fray

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