What we talk about when we talk about sharks

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Two 10-15 foot sharks were spotted in the waters by Kamaole Beach on Maui this morning. Yesterday, three to five 15-foot sharks were seen in the same areas, and another 8-10 foot shark was spotted off of Pounders Beach in Laie.

Seeing a large shark nearby is understandably shocking, but not all that surprising — especially this time of year and in these locations. Sharks have historically been most active in October and November, and according to Dr. Kim Holland of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, shark sightings are most common off South Maui and near Kahuku Point.

But the term “shark sighting” has a subtext of something deeper, darker, scarier. When you’re surrounded by vast ocean in all directions, the reality of our aquatic borders is as striking as a sharp dorsal fin against the horizon: we not only share the waters with other lifeforms, we do so at our own risk. When we talk about shark sightings, what we’re really thinking about is shark attacks.

This is sometimes called the Jaws Effect, the immediate feeling of terror when we think about sharks, as unsettling as a hard bump against the bottom of a kayak. They are indeed scary, not just because of their sharp teeth and intimidating beneath-the-surface silhouettes, but because they inhabit a world in which we are hopelessly vulnerable. If there’s anything scarier than a shark bite, it’s the feeling of being helplessly weak.

But as ocean conservationist Brock Cahill said, “Sharks are just mirrors—they reflect whatever you give them. If you’re scared, they’ll get scared. Sometimes bite. But if you’re super-stoked to see these sharks, the way they react is completely different.”

The numbers don’t lie. Since 2010 there have been 78 shark attacks in Hawaii, 19 of which resulted in no injuries, and only four of which ended fatally. No need to grab the calculator: despite countless thousands of people in the ocean every day of the year, roughly one person gets injured by a shark every two months, and one person gets killed by a shark every two and a half years. That’s not even close to our greatest threat in the water, let alone on land.

While the sighting of a large tiger shark will always send a visceral shiver up your spine, the grim truth is that our own species poses an incalculably greater danger to our personal safety.

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