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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Women, men and sharks

THERE is a crazy story out there that men are attacked by sharks much more frequently than women.  Is that true?  If so, what is causing it?  A lot of people have been talking about shark attacks lately, especially the connection to gender.  Let’s separate the fact from fiction.

It is true that sharks attack men more than women.  It has been true over the last hundred years or so, when we have keeping records on such things, and the trend has remained in place even in recent years.  Men make up a staggering 85-90 percent of shark attack victims, and are over 90 percent of attack fatalities.  So not only are males bitten at a rate of nine to one, they die at a rate of ten to one.  These numbers are too grotesque to be coincidence, so what is going on here?  Let’s look at some popular theories.

More men get in the water. Yes. This has been true historically, although more women swim in the ocean than ever before.  Sports such as surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling had long been male things to do, but not any more.  Women are getting into water sports in greater numbers than ever before, so with more women in the water we should see the gender discrepancy in shark attacks begin to even out. 

Men engage in high-risk behavior while in the water. Yes and no.  There is an old idea that men swim farther from shore, dive deeper and generally take greater risks in the water than women, which increases their likelihood of being attacked.  That would only be true if sharks attacked those swimming further and deeper, wouldn’t you think?  But sharks attacks are most common in less than five feet of water and less than fifteen feet from the shore, exactly where women prefer to swim.  Statistically speaking, to avoid shark attacks you should swim further from shore and in deeper water, where attacks are least likely to occur.  So follow those crazy, risk-taking males and get away from the shark attack sweet spot. 

Spear fishing is the activity most likely to get you attacked. Yes.  There is no question that the sport of spear fishing draws shark attacks.  Think about it: you are stabbing large fish who then thrashes and squirms in its death throes, then you swim, bloody fish in tow, back to shore.  This is exactly the behavior that provokes feeding frenzies among sharks!  Spear fishermen ring the dinner bell wherever they go, and statistics back this up.  More spear fishermen are attacked by sharks than surfers, scuba divers or even open water swimmers as a percentage.  Those other guys are not in constant close proximity to bloody, dying fish.

Sharks prefer the meat of males over females. No.  I have not tasted human meat so I cannot comment on flavor.  However, how we taste would have nothing to do with whether a person is attacked, only with if they are eaten.   A shark does not know what we taste like until he bites, and these numbers are encouraging.  The vast majority of shark attacks are single-bite events.  Rarely does a shark come back and bite a person again, and there are only a few cases in history where a shark consumed a person.  This indicates that sharks do not really like the taste of human flesh.  Can sharks sense testosterone or estrogen, the hormones that make us male and female?  No research has been done on that question so there is a career for one of you.  

Are sharks drawn to a menstruating woman. No.  If that were even remotely true the statistics on shark attacks would not look as they do.  Studies have been done on this and their conclusion is that there is no difference in shark behavior around menstruating women.

So what are we left with?  So far, the only direct connection between men and getting attacked is that there are more men in the water.  Other than that, we can’t explain the great gender difference.  It would be interesting to know the gender of the sharks.  For example, do male sharks attack male swimmers, or do sharks tend to attack the opposite gender?  We are a long way from solving this riddle.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.