By Dr. Erich K. Ritter
When humans use their emotions to describe living organisms it is called anthropomorphism.
This may extend from the "bad" wolf to the "sly" fox to the
"clumsy" bear or the "false" snake. This does not mean that the behavior
of these animals matches these attributes, but rather that humans perceive or interpret
animals in this light. It is thus not astonishing that certain, most-feared animal groups
such as snakes or sharks are rarely described with attributes which express a positive
attitude on the part of their observers. To describe a shark as "lovable" is for
many people just as grotesque as calling a snake "honest". Thus, because some
animal groups are labelled to reflect human perceptions, some species may find it that much
harder to be accepted than other species. One of the best examples of this is the
Quite often people approach me to relay and discuss their special shark stories. These
stories most always begin and end in the same way - and in most cases "aggressive"
sharks play a central role. However, when I ask why the shark, in the end, did not bite, the
discussion ebbs because the narrator has no logical reason to explain it. Is it possible
that nature differentiated here, developing creatures which are aggressive and harmless at
the same time? Hardly, but once more observers become victims of their own fantasies and
prejudices, confusing their anthropomorphic views with reality. The "aggressive"
shark is just as unreal as the "lovable" shark and is more an image of our own
The astonishing truth is that "aggressive" sharks appear primarily with two groups
of divers, the beginners and the experienced shark divers who mainly dive in the same areas.
It is quite understandable when inexperienced divers or swimmers claim to have encountered
an "aggressive" shark. To them any shark exceeding one meter in length may well
appear to be dangerous, with any latent fears enhanced by sensation movies and corresponding
media reports. But why do experienced divers become victims of these kind of phenomena? My
personal experience in many discussions suggests that many divers frequently go down
regularly at the same locations and in time get used to the sharks encountered there. Often
they meet the same animal species or very specific species. In time, any initial caution is
replaced by more boldness in these encounters. The diver may soon feel capable of evaluating
these confrontations and knowing how close he or she may approach a shark, or vice versa,
how close the shark will dare to approach. Sooner or later the diver may unconsciously
develop a certain feeling as to if and when a shark may turn off and in effect withdraw.
This apparent confidence in the behavior of a given shark species is often the origin of the
so-called "aggressive" sharks. Different shark species have different approach or
withdrawal parameters as well as interest zones which are sometimes called the inner or
exterior circle of attention. When experienced divers suddenly meet another shark species
whose withdrawal distance is less natural, they may well experience fear as the shark
approaches closer than what they are used to. Their first reaction may then be to withdraw.
Should this shark now come significantly closer, some individual elements, not necessarily
visible from a distance, acquire a new dimension: The turning of the eyes and the downward
movement of the pectoral fins when turning around can be very impressive at close distances.
Another signal may then be released by the subconscious which says: Caution! This shark's
eyes are moving and he is pressing down his pectoral fins!. This more conscious perception
of up until now unobserved details can lead the diver to believe that he is confronted with
an "aggressive" shark. But this seemingly "aggressive" shark may be
nothing more than a representative of a different species used to turning away at much
It is generally a mistake to describe animals
through "clichés". This fact must be
considered when animal campaigns are launched. Cuddly animals are easily protected. Who can
refuse to participate in campaigns like "Free Willy", "Save the Wales"',
or "Stop the slaughter of seals"? Not all animals are lucky enough to fit into the
human "small child image" which awakes our protective instincts. But more than
likely, it is precisely these animals which may need protection if we want to live our
future in an intact ecosystem.
* Dr. Erich
K. Ritter is a shark specialist, a Senior Scientist at the Green Marine
Institute and Assistant Professor at Hofstra University, New York.
May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Dr. Erich K. Ritter