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JUPITER, Fla. — First, the good news: I swam next to a shark without getting hurt.
Now the bad news: Each year roughly 100 million sharks are killed, lowering the global population of the animals to dangerously depleted levels.
My plan was simple. I wanted to write a story about the myth that sharks are violent killers. To do so, I enlisted the help of Julie Andersen, the founder of Shark Angels, a nonprofit conservation group, and a longtime activist. Julie has spent the last 15 years warning people about the consequences of hunting this magnificent and endangered marine predator. She is the best publicist a shark could ask for. “They should be treated with respect,” she told me.
As for any fears I might have? “Don’t you worry at all,” Julie reassured me. “We are not on their menu.”
My team and I headed to the town of Jupiter, about an hour and a half north of Miami up the Florida coast, where lots of companies offer daily shark-diving excursions. Shark diving is not as dangerous as you might think. After all, if the sharks went around eating tourists, these diving businesses wouldn’t last very long.
Still, there was a problem. The night before we arrived, a huge storm had scared off all the harmless lemon sharks we were supposed to film for our story. So Julie and I were forced to venture out into the deeper waters off the coast, to find what sharks remained. A bloody chunk of fresh fish would serve as our bait.
Outfitted with masks and fins, I jumped into the water, close behind Julie. Though she had only good things to say about sharks (“They won’t attack you”) and had told me how to avoid any trouble (“Don’t touch them”), I was feeling a bit uneasy about the prospect of a face-to-face encounter with a shark in the Atlantic.
I had little time to worry. After only a few minutes, we spotted one. It was nothing like what I expected: The shark emerged from the deep sea and headed straight for the bait, which we had stored inside a little plastic crate. It was a 10-foot-long bull shark. From my research, I knew we had summoned up one of the most dangerous shark species in the world.
I stayed still, my body nearly paralyzed and my eyes fixed on the shark, while I floated at the water’s surface. Julie calmly took a deep breath and dove down, effortlessly moving toward the shark. The pair seemed to greet each other. Then, in a sort of dance, they began swimming in circles. They continued harmoniously for a few seconds before the dark-gray creature disappeared.
And that was it. Once I regained my composure back on the boat, the only thing I could think of was how grateful I was for my brief encounter with the shark, as well as the gorgeous sunset that accompanied it. (You can watch our report here.)
Sharks are in urgent need of an image makeover. The 1975 blockbuster “Jaws” portrayed them as brutal assassins who attack people without provocation. The distorted image was further spread by a sensationalist press that reflexively jumps on any story involving a shark, no matter how inconsequential.
This notion of sharks as merciless killers couldn’t be further from the truth. In 2018 only five people around the world died as a result of shark attacks, according to a detailed report prepared by the Florida Museum of Natural History. There were only 66 unprovoked shark attacks in 2018, a slight drop from previous years.
In contrast, humans kill many millions of sharks every year, largely for their fins. In Asia, the traditional dish known as shark fin soup is believed to have healing powers, including the ability to increase stamina and even fight off cancer. None of this is true. Even so, shark fins can be sold for hundreds of dollars per pound.
Sharks endure great hardship. The most complete study conducted to date, published by the British journal Marine Policy in 2013, suggests that approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year as a result of fishing (though the total could range between 63 million and 273 million). Between 6.4% and 7.9% of the global shark population is killed each year, a level that exceeds the animal’s annual breeding rate, estimated at 4.9%. If sharks continue to be slaughtered at this rate, they will disappear completely in less than a century.
Most of us are scared of sharks. In reality, however, sharks have far more reason to be afraid of us. For every person killed by a shark, we kill approximately 20 million of them. Humans, it turns out, are the real brutal assassins.