Thursday, September 30, 2010

Shark or Harpoon?

August 17th was set to be a big news day here in Australia.  The country was just days away from the major election that had been dominating the media for weeks and massive floods were devastating Pakistan.  On top of those two major headlines, there was a flare up around the Gaza border, a local toddler was kidnapped in a carjacking prompting the local version of an Amber Alert to be issued, and a major factory fire on the outskirts of Sydney was threatening to burn down an entire suburb.  But all of this was completely ignored the instant that a breaking news story popped up:


That’s right.  The political fate of the nation, thousands of dying Pakistanis, and the imminent fiery destruction of an entire suburb all became irrelevant thanks to a shark.  A surfer near the Margaret River area of Western Australia was attacked by a shark in the early morning hours.  Locals rescued the man and tried to keep him alive, but their efforts proved unsuccessful.  Not to make light of the situation, and not to disrespect the poor soul who lost his life to a sea beast, but it captivated me just how captivated the whole country was with this story.

You think about Australian beaches as hotbeds of shark activity – with those ominous fins poking out of the water at every beach in Australia nearly every day of the year.  But, seven months after I arrived, this was the first shark attack that I had seen make the news.  The shark attack was the headline of every major Australian newspaper and internet news site and was the top story on every TV news program for the next 48 hours.  Even my co-workers were talking about it all day – refreshing Sydney Morning Herald’s website every once in a while for an update.  It struck me as odd that this was such a big deal for people in a country where this was assumed to be commonplace.

But it was a big deal.  I looked up some statistics on this.  And by statistics, I mean Wikipedia… and a few other websites as well.  Maybe.  It seems our minds are a bit warped on just how dangerous sharks are or how frequently (or rather infrequently) shark attacks occur.  Yes, sharks can be very dangerous, but the severity of the problem is really just an exaggerated myth.  Australia’s shark-infested waters actually give rise to fewer shark attacks than in the USA each year, though Australia is ranked #2.  In Australia’s defense, have you seen the length of the coastline here?  That being said, very few people actually die from shark attacks – only a handful per year and those aren’t very often in developed countries like the USA or Australia.  You’re much more likely to get killed by lightning or run down by an Asian, elderly, teenage, drunk, or female driver.

Who said that?

Hell, you’re several thousand times more likely to simply drown than be killed by a shark.  So really, you should brush up on your swimming skills.  This turned out to be quite a rare event after all and that’s probably one of the contributing reasons why it caught the attention and the hearts of the nation.  You don’t hear about every death from a drive-by shooting in Compton because it’s commonplace.  But this was rare and, more importantly, it touched on the fears that we all have thanks to movies like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea.

Good work, LL Cool J.

Experts in this field said that seals were seen in the area that day, and the shark probably mistook the surfer for a seal.  Just a week or so later, a heavy-set Serbian tourist was swimming in the waters off Montenegro when a local mistook her for a big fat whale and harpooned her.  Don’t believe me?

It’s not just sharks that you need to beware of at the beach.  It’s Montenegrins too.  They should make a Jaws-style movie about that.

Just to be safe, I’ll stay out of the water for a while.  At least until I hit up the gym a bit more regularly.

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