As a child, I developed an intense fear of great white sharks. Here were these giant fish that skulked the ocean and preyed upon humans and even though I had never seen a shark in the flesh, nor had I researched them, I believed they were dangerous. Why? Because of cinema.
Shark films have always portrayed the shark as an enemy to humans and the granddaddy of the genre is, of course, Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 box office hit which pits the residents of a fishing town against a hyper intelligent, hyper aggressive great white shark. Sequels followed, as well as a legion of B-movie cash-ins. But it was Jaws that first made me believe great whites liked the taste of human flesh.
Today I understand why I reacted to Jaws so strongly upon watching it for the first time. Films can exert a powerful influence on every one of us, and while newer forms of entertainment are endlessly blasted in the media for giving us the opportunity to indulge depraved acts – namely videogames – movies are often more culpable in my eyes.
That’s because films are designed to influence us in a certain way. They are scripted, lit, shot and ultimately directed with an intent to influence you. That’s powerful stuff. You have a director orchestrating what we’re going to see and a team of subordinates making it a reality. The final product is then broadcast to a passive audience in a giant auditorium. Our passivity makes us malleable.
Filmgoers reacted to Jaws the way the filmmakers intended; the passive audiences sat in horror as the dreaded shark tore a small town apart and as a result were spellbound for the entire 120-minute runtime. Sharks were suddenly the great enemy. It didn’t matter that the great white in Jaws was hyper-sensationalised and hyper-unrealistic. It was a man-eating shark. Therefore, all sharks must be man-eaters.
As George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research remarked, “[t]he film’s key mistake was portraying great white sharks as vengeful predators that could remember specific human beings and go after them to settle a grudge.” Indeed, the scriptwriters (including the author of the original novel, Peter Benchley) somehow decided that an animal dating back millions of years needed to imbue these very human traits: vengefulness, spite, aggression.
It’s nothing new for Hollywood to produce a film riddled with factual errors and perhaps the filmmakers underestimated the impact Jaws would have, but in the last three decades no other film has perpetrated such an abject, corrupting stereotype about an animal species.
Two things happened after the film. People set off to hunt great white sharks and more Jaws films were put into production. Spielberg’s film blackened our attitude towards the animal and as R. Aidan Martin writes, “legions of macho idiots with a deep and abiding need to express their manliness through mindless violence headed to sea to do 'battle' with sharks.” In the process, the great white was massacred and its numbers dwindled. What is an uncommon animal to begin with became rarer still.
In the aftermath, Jaws author Peter Benchley admitted that he regretted writing a novel that had unintentionally caused an animal so much harm. But by the same token, Jaws actually had a positive influence on some people. Young men and women drawn to the allure of the outdoors and the majesty of the ocean watched the film and decided they wanted to be just like the character Matt Hooper. Hooper is the only person in the film who understands the great white. He was a character people looked to imitate by studying these animals intimately, and by doing so, our knowledge of great whites has been furthered.
But for the everyday person who gorges on films like Jaws, Sharknado and Avalanche Sharks (no joke), it’s hard to reconcile the notion that great whites are not man-eaters at all; that they don’t like the taste of human flesh; that attacks on humans are a case of mistaken identity; that sharks are retiring creatures not prone to wanton aggression. I would still hold on to my dated beliefs now had I not gone shark cage diving courtesy of Apex Shark Expeditions.
The experience changed my outlook completely and made me appreciate the ocean’s most talented killer. As the shark scythed through the water and towards the chum, there was no ominous music accompanying its arrival. It was a strangely serene, surreal experience. You realize in that moment the ocean belongs to the sharks, not to us.
Shark movies and popular culture in general has made us distrust, nay, fear the shark. But these are animals that have called the ocean their home for millions of years – far longer than we’ve inhabited the earth. And when you see the great white up close, in its personal domain, it’s hard not feel a sense of awe. You are a privileged spectator, privy to an evolutionary powerhouse commanding its space.
Shark cage diving changed my perception of the great white shark. In fact, it actively made me appreciate it. While sharks are of course dangerous animals we should not try to pet, they are not the man-eaters they’re made out to be. They do not like the taste of human flesh and they do not seek us out as prey. Hollywood isn’t particularly bothered by these facts, but it’s up to us to bear this in mind and stand in the way of dogmas that afflict the great white.
As an aside, this graph illustrates the number of ‘unprovoked’, fatal great white shark attacks worldwide since 1580... there have been 78 in all.