My daughter, Small Human, is a safety-conscious sort. Seat-belt safety, crossing-the-seat safety, bike helmet safety, she’s got all your big safety categories nailed down.
This talent for risk management comes to the fore at the beach, where she’s careful to note everything from how much sunscreen everybody is wearing to what sorts of flags are flying at the lifeguard tower. Sometimes however, I’ll hear about another safety concern. Sometimes I’ll be informed that she’s not going in the water because sharks are out there.
Like any good parent, my first instinct in a situation like this is to lie to my child.
“Sharks?” I want to say. “No no no. There’s no sharks here. They’re long gone at this time of year. They swim home for the summer; they’re big Canadians, basically.”
But I don’t say this, partially because it’s not true, and partially because it presents a downright harmful portrayal of what the ocean’s like. In actual fact, Small Human’s correct. There are lots of sharks around. Any time any of us swim in the ocean off Fort Lauderdale Beach, we are swimming not too terribly far from sharks. And you know what? That’s absolutely fine.
Can shark attacks happen? Sure, but here’s some context. According to the International Shark Attack File, a database run from the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, in 2018 there were 66 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide.
So yes, shark attacks can happen, but the number of people around the world attacked by sharks in 2018 could fit inside a single Tri-Rail carriage. Comparatively, according to the National Safety Council, about 40,000 Americans were killed in car accidents in 2018. If we worried about car accidents as much as we seem to worry about shark attacks, we might live in a place where proper driving education is actually required.
This is our ocean issue, and I hope you check out our story on sharks and shark research at Nova Southeastern University. One interesting detail from the story: sharks could help us treat diseases such as cancer. And the reason for it is a fascinating one: an increasing number of sharks are attending medical school. Their parents are so proud.
OK, so that’s not actually how sharks might be helpful with disease prevention. I won’t spoil the real reason; suffice to say, Jess Swanson’s story is a fascinating look at the research now happening around sharks.
To a person, the experts in the story also worry about how sharks are perceived. It’s an understandable worry. It’s easy to view sharks as a scary predator rather than an important part of an increasingly imperiled ocean ecosystem.
The last time we were at the beach, Small Human put on her sunscreen, checked the lifeguard flags, and then hopped in the water. I was glad to see it. I want my little Floridian to think about safety – but also to be concerned about the right things.