Humans are obsessed with sharks, and never is this obsession more apparent than Shark Week, happening now. The much-anticipated television tradition generates monster ratings every August — last year, 27 million people tuned in.
But what’s all the fanaticism about? Why do sharks captivate the imagination in a way that, say, antelopes and blobfish and barracudas do not? Are they really the vengeful beasts they were made out to be in the movie Jaws, 45 years old this year? And what is the deal with a shoemaker selling a $1,500 pair of shark high heels?
Six experts from various disciplines at the University of Delaware have weighed in on all things elasmobranch (that’s the term for a cartilaginous fish). The consensus? Our love affair with these toothy beasts is not likely to, ahem, jump the shark anytime soon.
Go ahead and dive in… the water’s fine.
Aaron B. Carlisle, assistant professor, School of Marine Science and Policy
Q: Are you a fan of Shark Week?
Carlisle: Like most shark researchers, I have a love/hate relationship.
Q: Why? What does Shark Week get wrong?
Carlisle: Most things! Well, that’s not totally true. Shark Week offers amazing footage of these beautiful animals. The problem is, it reinforces the stereotype that sharks are scary, bloodthirsty critters. That’s what draws the crowds, and I get that, but they’re focusing on the drama more than the actual science. Even though these shows pitch themselves as educational, they don’t teach about the animals. Instead, it’s all about “scientists” — and I’m putting that word in quotation marks — seeing if the sharks will, say, bite into a dead turkey or pig.
Q: What’s the point of that?
Carlisle: Good question. I mean, I’ve watched Shark Week since I was a kid. Back then it was educational — it was natural history. They’d talk about why sharks do what they do. But, over time, it became about blood and guts and Shaquille O’Neal diving with sharks.
Q: So, what role do sharks play, other than scaring humans out of the water? Why do we need them?
Carlisle: They are important as predators and consumers — they help reinforce the functioning of marine ecosystems and food webs. When you knock them out, overfish them or remove them, there is plenty of evidence this can have trickle-down effects. Coral reefs — the rain forests of the ocean — are the poster child for this type of situation. Where there are sharks, these reefs are still thriving and biodiverse. Where sharks have been fished out, you see nasty dying coral reefs, smothered by algae.
Q: If sharks disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow, what happens to humans?
Carlisle: There is no way to know. When it comes to ecology, people say: “Well it’s not rocket science.” And that’s true — it’s actually way, way, way more complicated. We can make some back-of-the envelope guesses, but the truth is, no one has a clue. But it would have a big effect, I’m sure. All the evidence from around the world indicates it would be a very bad thing.
Q: Can you give me an example?
Carlisle: In South Africa, they have shark nets to protect the beaches, which kill a lot of animals. They ended up killing a lot of bull sharks, which are aggressive and implicated in more attacks than other species. But they’re also big, and they eat a lot of things in the ocean. When you remove them, without that source of predation of smaller species, the smaller species become much more abundant. They started eating all the things humans like to go out and fish for. So it’s like this cascading effect with real-world implications for humans. Without sharks, it would be bad, but it’s nearly impossible to say what the outcomes would be.
Q: How close are we to experiencing these outcomes? We’re already afraid of sharks, but just how afraid should we be for them?
Carlisle: They’ve been hammered over the last 100 years. Some species have declined by 95, 99 percent, according to some estimates. They’ve been fished incredibly hard, often for shark-fin soup, or they’ve been caught as bycatch. People throw around numbers — 70 million sharks per year — although we don’t know for sure. But no one would argue: Lots and lots and lots of sharks are being killed. Most sharks live a very long time — it’s been discovered the Greenland shark may live up to 500 years — and they don’t have many pups. So it takes a long time to recover from over-exploitation.
Q: So sharks are not the man-hunting beasts they’ve been made out to be in pop culture?
Carlisle: Absolutely not. If they were man-hunters, you couldn’t go in the ocean. Reality is, if you go in the ocean, you’ll likely be near a shark at some point — that’s just the way it is. If you talk to people who are up in the air, like helicopter pilots or people using drones, they’ll tell you: “Wow, all these surfers and swimmers are surrounded.” It’s an indication of how unusual and how rare these shark attacks are and how safe you should feel.
Q: I read that the chances of an attack are less than death-by-falling-vending-machine. Is that an accurate way to quantify it?
Carlisle: Think of a way to die. You’re going to be more likely to die of that than a shark attack. Lighting strikes kill, I want to say, 40 to 50 in the U.S. per year; whereas, maybe one person dies from a shark. More people died over the last 10 years from sand-hole collapses on the beach than from sharks.
Q: Poor things need some PR help. Tell me something particularly cute they do. Has a shark ever tried to be affectionate with you?
Carlisle: Well, they definitely have personalities. You see it with some of the work we’ve done with white sharks in California. Each shark fin is like a fingerprint with its own unique edge, so you can tell them apart, and they all become part of the family. Some are very bold. Some are very timid. One of my favorites is a shark who did nothing much at all — he just swam around the periphery — so my colleagues named him Congress. Just like humans, some are grumpy. Some are more relaxed. They’re individuals, and that’s not something the public really considers. As for cuteness, some of the newborns are just ridiculously adorable.
Q: So, on the rare occasion sharks do attack, why? They mistake us for food? Or we just happened to stumble upon a cranky one?
Carlisle: You can’t know what a shark is thinking, but I tend to ascribe to the mistaken identity/curiosity theory. I mean, the way sharks find out what things are is with their mouth — they don’t have hands. And sharks are very curious — they’ll poke a soda can around with their nose or check out a bird floating at the surface. Very few attacks are fatal — they’re merely investigative. If the animals were actually trying to inflict damage, it would be a very different story. But typically it’s one bite and they’re gone. Unfortunately, sharks have very sharp teeth and they’re strong, so people’s bodies don’t hold up very well. These incidents are tragic and hugely traumatic, but it’s important to convey that they’re not trying to kill and eat you.
Q: Great whites get all the airtime, but what, in your professional opinion, is the coolest or most captivating shark?
Carlisle: One of my favorites is the cookie cutter, which is this funny little shark that gets to be maybe two feet long. He has this really unique, weird jaw and this suction-cup mouth. Basically, what they do is glow — they have bioluminescent organs on their stomachs. This attracts bigger fish — whales, dolphins, squid, great whites — or else it helps them to camouflage themselves. They’re motionless, and when a target swims by, they suck onto its side and use this lower jaw as basically a big knife — it’s a single unit of incredibly sharp teeth that looks like half a cookie cutter. And they basically suck up the tissue and spin and take out a perfect half-hemisphere. If you ever go out whale watching, or to a larger fish market, you’ll see these circular scars all over everything. Even nuclear subs get hit by them — that’s one of the first ways they were discovered. They kept biting little chunks out of the sonar domes. It’s just this ridiculously funky little animal.
Q: As an expert on sharks, what do you wish people knew?
Carlisle: These animals are hugely misunderstood. We’re all connected in this biosphere, and we’re all kind of together on this ridiculous journey around the sun. If you see a shark, just appreciate the opportunity, and know that it’s not interested in you. Sadly, people need to realize we’re not the most important thing in the world to sharks.
Lu Ann De Cunzo, professor and chair, Department of Anthropology
Q: There is so much shark stuff. Little kids wear shark clothing and sleep in shark bedding. Twenty-somethings sport shark-tooth necklaces. Fifty-somethings drink out of shark-themed mugs and buy shark-themed coffee tables. What, if anything, does all this shark merchandise say about us?
De Cunzo: A couple things interest me about this. The first is that so many of these objects are, in one way or another, associated with the human body. So, for example, shark costumes, shoes, shirts, necklaces — all examples of things we put on our body. Then there are those things we put inside our body, like shark tea. Then there are those things from which we consume what we put in our body, like shark bowls and beer cozzies. There are also things that protect our body, like shark inner tubes. And, finally, things we associate with comfort, like beach towels and stuffed animals. The other thing that strikes me is the way the shark is represented on those objects. The focus is on the wide-open mouth with the killer teeth ready to attack and consume us and leave the bloody water behind. So, these two things together get me thinking about the ocean as the last great frontier on earth — a place of beasts, mythical and real. And this gets me thinking about the human desire to tame the wild, to domesticate things, to represent things that are scary and potentially harmful as being in service to us.
Q: So all of this shark paraphernalia could be a way of coping with our own sense of vulnerability?
De Cunzo: Yes. How do we go on living with the constant fear of our vulnerability? We have to try and tame and control those fears. We domesticate them.
Q: Is that why people are willing to pay $1,500 for shark high heels?
De Cunzo: When I think of high heels and what they say about women, and maybe statements of aggressive sexuality and so on, there’s that association of the shark with being this powerful, aggressive creature that provokes fear. And we use the shark reference in business as well to describe people who are competitive and aggressive. It’s possible this is partly about self-representation, wanting to associate with those qualities. Of course, if you asked a woman why she bought those heels, she might just say: “Well, they were really cool looking and I like the color.” These are deep cultural associations we don’t even necessarily think about. This is what is so fascinating to me about objects — we don’t even know all the associations they’re making to us and to other people when we choose them as part of our life.
Jeffrey Rosen, professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Q: Humans are lured in by Shark Week, shark cages, even watching Jaws at night — while in the water. Why do we love stoking our own fear so much?
Rosen: We like the stimulation. We like to be excited. And fear is one of those emotions that really provokes the system. We get excited about new things or about, say, new love, but fear is really immediate. It raises those hormones — like adrenaline — really quickly. We like that activation. Because our brains know we’re actually safe, we get to enjoy that physiological response. It makes us feel more alive.
Q: But how come we’re afraid at all when we know, intellectually, the chances of an attack are almost nonexistent? Gruesome car accidents are far more likely, and we don’t panic about getting into a vehicle.
Rosen: It goes way back to our cave-people ancestors, who lived near water and were more likely to encounter sharks and other beasts. It’s an evolutionary development. There’s also some interesting research showing this kind of innate fear may be learned from when we’re young, from the people who are taking care of us. You internalize their response to certain things.
Q: So for the modern-day human who wants to get over their phobia and get back to enjoying summer vacation, what can they do?
Rosen: It is possible to conduct your own behavioral cognitive therapy. Repeat to yourself: “Oh, they’re not so bad; they’re not going to bother me; there are going to be lots of other people around.” You can think your way out of your fear.
Q: As an expert on fear, are you afraid of sharks?
Rosen: I did encounter some small ones while snorkeling once, but I was able to stay calm and swim in the other direction.
Thomas Leitch, professor in the Department of English, director of the Film Studies program
Q: The movie Jaws was the first blockbuster and it is still — after 45 years — finding new audiences. What accounts for this ability to transcend generations?
Leitch: The reason Jaws lasts is because it’s expertly scary in a way that lots of people — even those who don’t typically like horror films — can accept and enjoy.
I don’t think Jaws is really about a shark at all — the shark is more or less incidental. The movie uses the shark to crystallize lots and lots of different fears about losing your collective identity, being adrift, being up against something more powerful than you, entering the great unknown, having an enormous responsibility placed on your shoulders, having to work with other people you don’t really like and who don’t particularly like you. The shark turns up the heat and awakens these nascent fears, and we attach them disproportionately to the shark.
I would also say this is not so much a movie that has retained its appeal year after year after year, although Jaws has done that. It’s a movie that now, in 2020, is all of a sudden agonizingly relevant in a way it was not in 2019 or 2018 or 2017. It’s about the attempt of perfectly reasonable people to deny fears. There’s an elaborate plot in which the mayor of Amity Beach keeps trying to tell people there’s nothing to be afraid of here, nothing to see here, there is no danger, reopen the beaches. These days, the relevance is painful.
Q: Is it possible to quantify the effect of Jaws on the filmmaking industry?
Leitch: Everything in Jaws was accidental. Steven Spielberg was not supposed to direct — the initial director was thrown off set when he commented he didn’t know the difference between a shark and a whale. The three stars were not supposed to be in it, two stars were cast at the last minute, the script was still being written while the movie was in production, and the film went something like 100 days overschedule because of mechanical shark problems and problems with performers.
But there are lots of accidents behind most great movies. What’s unusual about Jaws is not the accidents, but that the accidents have been so influential. It really did make all these people afraid of sharks, and it really did change Hollywood’s business model.
Up until the mid 70s, Hollywood studios were based on the assumption you made 20 or 30 movies a year, you made a couple million dollars on each one, and that kept the studio afloat. But ever since 1975, ever since Jaws, the goal became making a film that is so amazing, everyone who has lived will want to see it. It will make a zillion dollars and it will keep your studio afloat for another year and, given that, you can do whatever else you want. That is how studios continue to operate to this day.
Q: What’s the most underrated shark movie out there?
Leitch: It’s my understanding the rest are overrated. Sharknado? No, thank you.
Kristian Schembri, teaching assistant, School of Music, former performing member of the Malta Philharmonic orchestra
Q: Steven Spielberg, who originally disliked the Jaws theme song, said it’s responsible for half the success of the movie. How can just two notes be so impactful and scary?
Schembri: Following World War II, film directors were more in favor of more modern sounds like jazz, and the sound of the orchestra was pretty much in decline up until the 70s. Two movies brought back that sound: Jaws and, two years later, Star Wars. So that was one thing that stuck out to audiences.
In terms of the music itself, it is correct that the theme song is just two notes, and these two notes — E and F — are called semitones. The distance between E and F is half a tone, and that makes for a very tense interval. Composer John Williams introduces these two notes with the low side of the orchestra, the depths of the orchestra, since the shark comes from the depths of the sea — in this way, it becomes a musical painting.
Then there’s the repetition of these notes, called an ostinato, which lends a sense of inescapability. This repetition is the most basic way to make a piece of music out of very few notes, and this minimalism parallels the minimalism of the film, where the motive of the shark is never really developed. There is no character development from the animal; he’s violent at the beginning, middle and end.
The theme song is also reminiscent of primitive music. When we think of ancient or tribal musical traditions, the first thing that comes to mind is drums, which we associate with rhythm, and the first form of rhythm was the repetition of one note. So this parallels the tribal nature of the shark.
Lowell Duckert, associate professor, English Department
Q: The sea monster archetype is as old as western literature. Why this preoccupation with aquatic beasts?
Duckert: There is a movement in literary and cultural studies known as blue humanities that has examined this. The fascination is humans can't really live in the sea (at least for now). We are terrestrial creatures, so we can only imagine what it's like thousands and thousands of feet down. We have not mapped the seafloor. As a limit case (or horizon), the ocean cannot help but excite the imagination.
Q: Why are so many of these imaginings antagonistic?
Duckert: When it comes to sharks, we’ve created a hegemonic narrative — they’re hostile — and this, in turn, influences the interactions we have with sharks, interactions that perpetuate the narrative. We need to break that cycle. We have to find ways to challenge this narrative with other stories, real-life stories that can be translated into art — novels, movies, poems. That’s our task. To find the stories that aren’t inherently based in horror and antagonism, but focus more on interconnection.
Q: Why is this important?
Duckert: Good ecological stories should not necessarily just be neat tales. They should be complicating our interactions with nature, and getting humans to ask more questions about our interactions. When you are faced with uncertainty — an oceanic space — do you think of that space as something to control or something to explore? When you look into the black eyes of a shark, do you think of this as another creature who has just as much right to flourish as you do? It’s an ethical question these types of stories can help us work through.
Q: How do we get there?
Duckert: What if we stop saying things like “man versus nature” and “human versus shark,” and start saying things like “humans and sharks” and “humans with sharks.” That opens up a whole range of storytelling possibilities. There will absolutely be room for hostility in that framing, but it’s not the only possibility. These watery spaces can excite and inspire. They don’t have to necessarily rely on the same tropes we’re used to, dominated by the Jaws franchise.