Shark/Human Interactions Along the Pacific Coast
of North America
Science will never be able to determine how many millennia ago one of our distant ancestors had our species' first encounter with a shark. However, we do know that along the Pacific Coast of North America interactions between sharks and humans have been authenticated at least as far back as the Nineteenth Century. Historically, encounters between sharks and humans have been bloody, and for this reason the former have had a negative reputation for centuries.
How Great Is the Risk?
Even today, within the deepest recesses of our mind, lies a primordial fear that will not allow us to enter the sea without thinking about the possibility of being attacked by a shark. Even when armed with the knowledge that we are more likely to be struck by lightning, stung to death by bees, or win the California State Lottery than we are of being attacked and/or fatally injured by a shark. Although such comparisons might be mathematically accurate, they are somewhat difficult to comprehend. One of the more common accidents that many of us face in our daily lives, and one most of us can relate to, is the number of people that are bitten annually by "man's best friend." In the city of San Francisco during the single year 1998, there were 596 reported cases of dogs biting humans. In contrast, the total number of authenticated cases of unprovoked shark attacks that were recorded from the entire Pacific Coast of North America during the Twentieth Century was only 108. Of greater significance is the total number of fatalities that were attributed to sharks during this 100-year period. Only eight fatal cases of shark attack were authenticated from the Pacific Coast during the entire Twentieth Century. It is quite possible that, during the Twentieth Century, more humans died in this same geographic region while playing bridge than died from shark attacks.
Kinds of Shark-Human Interactions
Over the last half century science has taken a more clinical approach to these interactions in an effort to determine those factors which might precipitate a shark attack. To facilitate study, interactions between sharks and humans are classified into three primary categories: encounters, provoked, and unprovoked.
A shark encounter is the coming together of a shark and human without any physical contact or consequences to either. A shark encounter with a human typically consists of a shark leisurely circling and/or slowly swimming past the subject without any aggressive behavior being exhibited. Encounters are always non-violent, and the shark's movements are usually described as "smooth and methodical." Divers have referred to this shark behavior as "being checked out by a shark." It is somewhat compelling that there are more shark encounters annually off the Pacific Coast than provoked or unprovoked attacks combined. This fact becomes even more intriguing when proposed motivations for White Shark attacks on humans are considered. If you have encountered a shark along the Pacific Coast - especially if it did something you deem "interesting or unusual" - the Shark Research Committee is interested in your report.
A provoked shark attack is the result of a human taking an offensive action that causes a shark to attack. These actions could be pulling a shark's tail, jabbing or poking a shark with a spear gun or similar object, cornering or cutting off a shark's route to open water, attempting to feed a shark by hand, chumming or baiting a shark to your area, and/or making an aggressive gesture toward an approaching shark. These are just a few examples of the type of action that might provoke a shark to strike out.
An unprovoked shark attack is the aggressive pursuit, biting or striking of a human, without any known provocative action by the victim. This is not to say that the victim might not have displayed a provocative gesture that triggered the attack; only that no provocative action was known to have occurred. Any physical contact between a shark and a human, or piece of equipment being utilized by the human, constitutes an unprovoked shark attack. For example, there are numerous cases - mostly involving surfers - of shark attack recorded along the Pacific Coast where only the equipment being used in the water activity was bitten by the attacking shark. If you have witnessed or been the object of an unprovoked shark attack, the Shark Research Committee is interested in your report.