You may have noticed that it’s shark week on the Discovery Channel, that week when we celebrate the most ferocious beast on planet Earth. For 25 years now, the Discovery Channel has been bringing us a combination of fun, educational, and terrifying documentaries about sharks. And it’s a great public service they perform, too, since, 1 out of every 500 million people die every year from shark attacks.
To put that in some perspective that means that if the US follows the world trend, that’s about 1 lost American citizen every other year! Of course, the US doesn’t usually follow world trends. In 2011, a third of the world’s shark attacks occurred in the US. Most American shark attacks occur in Florida, a state that (appropriately) serves as home to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), an organization responsible for authenticating and documenting suspected shark attacks. It makes sense then that the state of Florida has shark attack emergency response down to a science. In 2011, eleven authenticated shark attacks occurred off the Florida coast resulting in zero lost lives.
So I guess what I’m saying is that you probably won’t be killed by a shark, and, more importantly, if you are, then my odds go way down. In fact, according to Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman, “You’re more likely to be killed by: a hot dog, a regular dog, a pig, a horse, a toilet, a vending machine, a black Friday stampede, a lightning strike, a bed, an ant, a game of football, or a roller coaster.”
But even under the shadow of this overwhelmingly non threatening bunch of (possibly made up) statistics, we somehow remain obsessed with these creatures.
Why is that? The answer is fame.
Think about it. The odds of an individual getting gnawed on by a shark (let alone dying from it) might as well be about a gazillion to one, which means if you’re one of the few (thanks to the Discovery Channel) you are instantly famous, meaning you might have an entire 15-minute segment of one documentary devoted to your story.
But the shark attack rocket to fame predates Shark Week. The first well-documented case of a shark attack comes from 1749, when 14-year-old Brook Watson, sailor on one of his uncle’s merchant ships (and later a member of British Parliament and Lord Mayor of London), was attacked while swimming in the Harbor of Havana. The shark came at him twice, the first time biting off a chunk of his right calf, and the second, taking off the foot on the same leg. Crewmembers managed to pull Watson to safety, though he would require amputation of the leg below the knee.
It seems Watson knew what he was doing, though, and he managed to turn misfortune into notoriety. Even though he was born into a good family, Watson was orphaned early in life, leaving his future success uncertain. He proved to be a good merchant and eventually a successful (if not especially well loved) politician, but that is not why he is remembered today.
Those who recall the name of Brook Watson, most likely remember him for the John Singleton Copley painting which Watson himself commissioned, entitled Watson and the Shark. The work was a hit when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778. Later, Watson made a great show of bequeathing the work to The Royal Hospital of Christ in London where it was displayed from shortly after his death until 1963 when it was sold to the National Gallery of Art where I’m sure you will rush to see it as soon as Shark Week is over.
In his will, Watson went to great lengths to explain that he hoped the painting would serve as a “useful lesson to youth.” And it seems to me that’s what shark week is about, too. I mean, sure Shark Week (and its massive ratings) took the Discovery Channel from a small struggling little cable channel to a huge network that now reaches more than 100 million US homes (at least one potential future shark attack victim) and more than 180 countries, but it’s not about the ratings. Like Watson before them, the Discovery Channel is simply attempting to provide a useful lesson to the youth.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
1.There’s safety in numbers.
3.Don’t wear or use safety equipment that is “yum yum yellow” (though if we can believe the painting, Watson didn’t actually wear anything at all and that didn’t work out so well either)
4.Don’t swim in “shark infested” waters (And definitely don’t call it “shark infested” water. I mean they live there. It’s kind of rude.)
5.If you feel you must be attacked by a shark, do it off the coast of Florida.
Happy Shark Week!