Swimming in Human Infested Waters

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.

Watson and the Shark - small version
Watson and the Shark – small version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.
2.Don’t bleed.
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!


40 thoughts on “Swimming in Human Infested Waters

  1. darkeyesblueveil

    Oh I disagree with #5. For the simple reason if you go swimming off the coast of Florida, and you aren’t lucky enough to be attacked by a shark, then when you come ashore you’re still… well… in Florida. Where you are much more likely to be attacked and killed by a gang-banger. No no no., I f you are looking to get attacked by a shark, do so in Australia, Vietnam or the Philippines. At least that way you will have had an interesting, safe holiday beforehand.

    1. Ha! I have similar feelings about Florida, though I suspect this may stem from the fact that I do not live there. I would love to visit Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, but as of yet, I have no plans to be attacked by a shark anywhere in the world.

      1. Boy, I can’t get away with anything with you 🙂 I simply meant that those of us who do not live in Florida may perhaps find ourselves a little jealous of those who do. I still have no wish to be attacked by a shark. Though what I learned from Shark Week this year is that the most aggressive shark on the planet (the bull shark) is found in the Mississippi River as far north as St. Louis. Guess I’ll cancel my leisurely dip in the river.

  2. Nasty things.
    We had a fatal shark attack here, off the West Australian coast, last month.
    It was the 5th fatal shark attack off our coast in12 months.
    It must be the climate change.
    I don’t do many “shark” cartoons, but there’s one featured in one of the caricatures in my blog.
    Maybe we should be eating more of them, just to keep their numbers down.

    1. Maybe…but consider that hot dogs kill more people than sharks do. So should we eat more hot dogs? I think more people will probably die if we do. Also, I don’t deny sharks are dangerous, just that they are not quite as eager to eat people as they are rumored to be.

      1. I was not familiar with the nurse shark, though I don’t find it surprising at all that there are more nonthreatening species out there than there are threatening ones. Even those that are dangerous, are really only so when we do not repsect their habits and habitats.

      2. Nurse sharks are bottom feeders. They generally stay on the sea floors feeding on shell fish, etc. They’re also slow swimmers. Although they are not aggressive, they will bite divers who step on them — purely defensive on their part.

  3. I had to look up a larger version of that painting, which I had never heard of. Mr. Watson certainly had the painter enhance his image – that’s quite a physique for a 14-year-old boy. And the shark’s nostrils look like mustaches 😀 History is awesome!

  4. whowillibetoday

    Very interesting post! I didn’t even realize that the Discovery Channel had been around for 25 years. We haven’t been watching Shark Week this year, most of the shows didn’t sound quite as interesting as in years past. And I never saw anything about Brook Watson on any Shark Week shows before – how did they miss that?

  5. I have the most inexplicable phobia of sharks. I live 5 minutes away from the beach in the Dominican Republic and even though one has never been seen on it, I still fear going into the water when it’s cloudy after rain. This piece was funny though and took some of the stress off of the idea of getting in the ocean…let’s hope it lasts!

  6. I’m an Aussie and downunder we have many shark attacks although I figure the statistics aren’t much different…more chance of being killed in a million other ways. Most who have survived will comment that they were in it’s domain so one can’t blame the shark. So unless they begin to be able to walk on land, I’m with you, there’s not too much to worry about.

  7. Kate Skye Ride

    True, and Mythbusters can never be wrong!
    Another interesting fact; There are people who eat crocodiles, than crocodiles who eat people.
    Chew on that.
    Always, forever, and absolutely never.
    Read, write, give up.
    Love, Kate.

    1. Yep. There are way more sharks killed annually by people than people killed by sharks. It’s sad. I do think the History Channel has made efforts to highlight that, though people getting dramatically injured or killed brings higher ratings, I’m sure.

  8. Living in Western Australia, we are continually bombarded with the ‘fear’ of being devoured by ‘the’ beasts from the deep. We are practically the only State in Australia who don’t have shark nets surrounding our beaches. Yet there have only been 877 shark attacks in Australia since records began in 1791, 216 of which have been fatal. There have been 3 fatalities (shark attacks) in the last 11 months; but REALLY…. Compare that to the daily road toll, it is superfluous! Western Australia also have the deadly blue bottle jelly fish and the crocodiles in the north west to deal with (yet, we must remember…they were here first!) Love your article. 🙂

  9. stevenegg

    I enjoyed your piece. I have been quite close to some very large sharks the past year while on assignment in The Bahamas. I watched folks swimming with the creatures and nobody was lunch.

  10. MgWade

    Lovely article!

    Leaves me worrying for the much under-appreciated flesh-eating bacteria though. Quite as deadly, but sadly, less attractive injuries and less ominous visuals for TV.

    While I, too lack the time (and stomach) to go finding citations, I expect they kill as many people and probably maim even more than sharks. And they do it in delightfully gruesome ways.

    They just need a good PR man and a catchy theme song. Anyone?

    Thanks for the great read! I do love a bit of bite with my braininess.

  11. blogceanawards

    A very special well done! You have been awarded a Grade 5 BlOgcean Award from us! Your the first ever to get this particular silver award, so we would be grateful if you could spread the word about us! If you want to know more about us and your award go to: http://blogceanawards.wordpress.com/
    Keep posting on your great blog! And go on our Blog to nominate someone else’s blog too if you feel like it!

  12. Hey, Sarah! Good job, and look at all the interest you drummed up, too.
    Altho you downplay your facts, I choose to believe the quality of your research and will quote you the first time “shark” comes up in any coffee-time conversations.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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