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The Truth About Sharks

August 24, 2003

Few creatures arouse such primal human fear as sharks, which is one reason why "shark attack" shows remain so popular on cable TV today, decades after the "Jaws" movies seemed to have exhausted their sensationalist potential. But last week's fatal attack in Avila Beach on 50-year-old Deborah Franzman shocks us back to reality. The manner of her death also underscores how misleading popular caricatures can be.

Far from being some Peter Benchley character gobbled off a boat, Franzman had been swimming with dozens of seals, which she resembled in her dark wetsuit and fins, in dark water just after 8 a.m. Swimmers can take steps to reduce the likelihood of attacks, such as not paddling in dirty, dark or turbid water, especially with shark delicacies like sea lions, elephant seals and marine turtles. Experts also advise people to avoid swimming between sandbars and near river channels, where sharks sometimes dwell, and to leave the area if schooling fish or sea mammals behave erratically or congregate in large numbers, as they did before Tuesday's attack.

Shark incidents are far less common than TV shows suggest. Franzman's death was only the 10th shark-bite fatality in California waters since authorities standardized record-keeping in the early 1950s. Meanwhile, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually, mainly through fishing, and some species are at the edge of extinction. Although sharks get bad press, they kill far fewer people than elephants, bees, crocodiles, lightning or many other natural dangers. Swimmers are much more likely to drown after having a heart attack or become paralyzed after diving into a sandbar.

Still, as the attack on Franzman showed, when sharks and humans do collide in the water, shark jaws are machines of lethality. The ocean harshly reminds us that it is not a chlorinated tank but a vibrant, sensitive ecosystem in which swimmers are just one of many living things.

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