Selachaphobia - Fear of Sharks
White Shark © Alexey Semeneev.

Feared by many the shark is all too often labelled as a blood thirsty beast with an unstoppable appetite for human flesh. Yet in reality the chance of being bitten by a shark are remote. Most people will never encounter one in the wild, yet even so the fear of sharks is common, sometimes reaching into the realms of phobia – selachaphobia: the irrational fear of sharks. 

Sharks have occupied the seas for the last 450 million years and, as one of the oceans top predators, sit firmly at the head of the table, occupying the same position as the big cats – lions and tigers – do on land. They are exceptionally efficient hunters armed with a mouthful of self-replacing teeth in a large, powerful body. But this efficiency should be admired rather than feared. Sharks have evolved over the aeons, developing adaptations perfected to hunting down and devouring the prey needed to survive, not to terrify bony, nutritionally-poor humans.

Worldwide, sharks are responsible for less than 15 fatalities each year – a tiny number in comparison with death by drowning. Indeed, more people die from household accidents or from crossing the road, yet these incidences are not covered by the media with such ghoulish fervour. Irresponsible and careless coverage reinforces the public image of sharks as senseless killers and films such as Jaws and Open Water, born from fascination with our own mortality in the face of the unknown, have much to answer for by portraying sharks as indiscriminate aggressors.

There is a deep psychological root to this fascination. As top predators, and Earth’s dominant species, humans are not accustomed to, nor accept being considered as prey. Consequently we are intrigued and disturbed by any undermining of our sense of superior invincibility – emotions which the prospect of being consumed by a large ferocious fish can only amplify.

We are also conscious of being out of our element in the sea. It is an unfamiliar environment where our senses don’t work properly: our vision and hearing is hindered and our movement feels unnatural. We are aware of being very vulnerable when suspended in the water and our imaginations race to fill any gaps in our senses, and that below us. While we cannot see what may be lurking below, and although our rational mind knows that there is little chance of something attacking us, we are aware of the possibility of potential harm, which is then magnified.

Given the boom in the popularity of ocean-based recreational pursuits and the many millions of people using the oceans and seas every day, if sharks were the sinister predators they are often portrayed to be, the statistics – and headlines – would tell a grim and bloody story. Instead, analysis of fishery and shark attack figures suggest that sharks may be up to 30 million times more likely to be eaten by us than we are to be attacked by them. For sharks the statistics are without doubt a grim, bloody and desperate account. With up to 73 million sharks killed every year, many species face extinction through overfishing, trophy hunting, and habitat destruction.

Fear of unseen predators is an ancient, primeval terror. Improving our understanding and knowledge of these creatures will help dispel the myths, the bad press, and the general perception of sharks as evil killers and re-launch them in the public eye as the fascinating and diverse creatures they are.

Related Links:

Sharks in Art

Shark Films

Shark Photography