The widespread fear and phobia associated with sharks is nothing new. The deadly potential of these lurking underwater monsters has been a common theme in popular culture, from Jaws to frantic, sensationalistic media reports.
So when Sydney University public policy lecturer Christopher Neff hit the stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday to debunk our sweeping fear of sharks, he faced a challenge. How could an academic, seemingly far removed from the pain and tragedy associated with shark attacks, speak on such an emotionally-charged topic, while retaining a sense of compassion?
Dale Carr, shark attack survivor and audience member at the Curiosity Lecture, said he was cynical at first. By the conclusion of Dr Neff’s talk the Port Macquarie tradie, seated in the front row with a microphone in hand, confessed: “I came here with a perceived opinion of you before, and I’ve actually just changed.”
“For better or worse?” Dr Neff queried. “For the better,” he replied.
After being attacked in the waters of Port Macquarie’s Lighthouse Beach late last year, Mr Carr spoke of his ability to rationalise the event which almost claimed his life, while stressing he wanted an end to the fear-mongering surrounding sharks.
It was clear Dr Neff was attuned to shark attack victims. He began his lecture with the disclaimer: humans are not numbers.
“It seems sharks have it in for us … but sharks are not after us,” he said. Dr Neff, who wrote his PhD on the politics of shark attacks, spoke of the media sensationalism and political motives that underpin much of the discourse around shark attacks.
For the past 10 years, his research into shark attack activity in the waters of Australia, South Africa and the United States has attempted to quash the myths that continue to pervade our collective imaginations. He said his work was about shining a light on the so-called “murky waters of shark attacks.” And he was well aware of the hard sell he faced regarding his research into shark attack phenomena and surrounding policies.
As he addressed the room, his lively, animated and often funny presentation was the antithesis of the dark, fear-ridden rhetoric usually associated with shark attacks.
Dr Neff pointed out the most highly reported shark attack story of 2015, that of champion Australian surfer Mick Fanning, was in reality more of a shark encounter than an attack. “In the biggest story of the year about a shark attack … the shark did not bite anyone,” he said. “This was the biggest shark attack story in the world, and there was no shark attack.”
The media is largely responsible for perpetuating the misconceptions related to human-shark interactions, all in the name of click bait. “When you keep saying it, ‘Shark attack, shark attack, shark attack, shark attack’, it’s an illogical fallacy. You create meaning from an outcome that has no connection between the thing.”
Politicians are equally responsible for hyping up these events, he said. “$62m is spent in Australia on shark bite mitigation. All for a problem that is a political problem, not a public safety problem, with solutions that probably can’t work because they’re addressing a problem that isn’t really a problem. So we’re spending $62m looking at this problem that doesn’t exist, for solutions that can’t work.”
Shark attacks are rare, random events and exist within a unique statistical category, he said, and it is time we altered our relationship with the ocean overall.
“We need to treat the beach like the bush,” he said. “At some point we have to take responsibility for ourselves in the wild. We are land animals and it is the plight of land animals [that] when you enter a domain that is not yours, within which you do not live and which you enter as a luxury, you cannot be guaranteed safety.
“This is an inconvenient truth. The story of the island nation that was able to keep fish away is not a successful story.”