“Sharks are dull and vapid animals that, if they didn’t bite people, there wouldn’t be any attention on them; they think with their mouths, they do not think with their brains.”

It is tough to comprehend the fear that the word sharks still instill in people and the level of ignorance (from Latin not to know, to be unacquainted; mistake, misunderstand) that surrounds them.

I read the sentence in a Tweet no more than a month ago; I attempted to explain how there are so many different sharks species and intelligent creatures with memory retention; the reaction was to block me.

It was an inexorable reaction to the possibility that the person’s knowledge about sharks was incorrect.

Sharks start with a noticeable disadvantage already in their name.

Until the 16th century, sailors called sharks “sea dogs.”

The etymology of the word “shark” is uncertain; the most likely derives from the Dutch schurk, meaning “villain, scoundrel”; Someone later applied the term to sharks to indicate one who preys on others.

In Latin, the word Squalus, which gives the Italian name of Squalo, means rough, filthy, indecent. 

It is not uncommon in our day to day language to define an unscrupulous individual as a “shark,” a rapacious crafty person who takes advantage of others often through usury, extortion, or devious means.

The word shark elicit views of razor-sharp teeth ready to clamp down on the unaware swimmer, in a formidable performance that doesn’t leave a chance of survival. The imagination builds these animals into mythical creatures that remind me of the stories I used to read about Scilla and Cariddi (Homer-Odyssey). In the background, we might as well hear the famous soundtrack of Jaws.

People often ask me how to reduce their fear of sharks. My first answer is always to recommend to acquire knowledge. With ignorance, we foster fear, and we end up burning witches at stake.

Cristina and horn shark. Image Jill Heinerth

I always start by saying that there are over 520 species; I encourage them to look up the smallest shark in the world, a dwarf lantern shark (Etmopterus perryi), and the biggest shark in the world, the whale shark (Rhincodon Typus).

Saying sharks is like saying birds, and even if we are not interested in birds, we know very well that not all birds fly, nest on trees, or have beautiful colors. We should apply the same mindset when we talk about sharks. One size does not fit all. Once we understand that we need to diversify the species of sharks and their environment and related behavior, we can begin learning about sharks and their true nature. We need to avoid generalized questions and answers; we cannot provide one solution to react to a shark’s sight or approach one. There is a generalized consent that a human becomes a dinner bell for sharks once on the surface. We need to identify several factors for this statement to become possible. We need to consider the location, the sharks living in the area, and the water; we can also extend our evaluation to the person’s activity. 

All these factors need to be determined for a proper answer and course of action to have a significance. We need to accept that there is no one solution to our questions and that it’s our job to evaluate the situation, location, and conditions. 

Perhaps Jaws’ real power is the sense of vulnerability, the knowledge that there are things in nature we cannot control.

We are so used to master our world, especially the one on land, that we struggle with the thought that we cannot master nor control 71% of our Planet and that in this vast entity, there are the best designed and most perfect creatures in charge of their world and in a certain way of us. 


By: Cristina Zenato

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