AMU Emergency Management Opinion Public Safety

Growing Up with Sharks: Are They Really a Threat to Humans?

By Dr. Danny Welsch
Associate Dean, School of STEM, American Public University

I grew up with sharks. I probably swam with them on a regular basis, and I heard lots of stories from friends and family who had “interacted” with one.

I was always seeing photos of sharks that had been caught off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, where I spent all my summers until adulthood. To me, the sharks in those photos always looked like the shark in the movie “Jaws.”

These sharks were Makos, Tigers and Hammerheads. To see them hanging by their tails, mouths open and with a proud angler standing alongside, should have struck fear into a 10-year-old who loved to swim in the ocean.

Yet somehow, I never feared sharks. I was actually much more frightened of stepping on a crab and getting my toe pinched.

My younger brother says a shark once bit him on his ankle. It didn’t look like a shark bite to me, but it made for a good story. He definitely was bitten by something; maybe a crab?

Becoming More Aware of Sharks as I Became an Adult

I’m not entirely sure why I never thought much about sharks. In my mind, a shark was always “out there” in the deep water, well beyond the range of a swimmer.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how wrong I had been. The surf zone is full of sharks. But fortunately, they are just not that interested in people.

In the summers between my undergrad college years, I lived at our house in Ocean City and worked as a produce stocker at the Super Thrift grocery store on 130th Street. It was a good job that gave me a lot of free time to enjoy the ocean.

I started doing what I called “reverse surf fishing” in the late afternoons and evenings. I would navigate our 21-foot boat down the back bay behind the island, through the very rough inlet that separated Ocean City from Assateague Island, and out into the ocean.

I would head up the coast a few miles and drift just outside the breakers, keeping the engine running in case a rogue wave broke a little farther out and I needed to make a quick retreat.

Casting my fishing line into the breakers, the current would hold it there until I either caught a fish or lost my bait. It was a lot of fun and I caught a lot of fish.

I also caught a lot of sharks – a surprisingly large number. Now, these sharks weren’t the Makos and Tigers like I saw in the photos published in the local angling rag, the Coastal Fisherman. They were much smaller Sand and Dusky sharks, but these sharks looked exactly the same as the bigger Makos and Tigers.

Sharks Aren’t Trying to Eat You; They Are Just Curious

Shark attacks are rare – that’s what the statistics say. According to the University of Florida, you are 75 times more likely to die from lightning than a shark attack.

The fact of the matter is that sharks just aren’t interested in people, especially the smaller sharks that hang out in the surf zone. We are actually much larger than most of these sharks, so they can’t really eat us.

So why do sharks occasionally bite people? In a word, curiosity. Sharks use their teeth like we use our hands. Sharks’ teeth can flex in their mouth from 10 to 15 degrees.

Based on this flex, they can tell how firm something is. This ability to detect firmness, together with the taste of any subsequent blood, can help a shark identify what it is biting. Fortunately, this bite very rarely happens to humans.

My brother is still the only person I know who may have been bitten by a shark. These days, my own children swim in the ocean every summer and they aren’t afraid of sharks.

As a parent, I’m concerned when my kids are in the ocean. Let’s just say that our time on the beach is not exactly relaxing when they’re in the water. Although I watch them like a hawk, I’m not watching for sharks.

I’m really worried about shore-breaking waves and rip currents. Shark attacks are the least of my concern, and theirs. But then again, my kids have never seen “Jaws.”

About the Author

Danny Welsch, Ph.D., is the Associate Dean and current Interim Dean of the School of STEM at American Public University. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Analysis and Planning from Frostburg State University, an M.S. in Environmental and Resource Engineering from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia.

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