6 Shark Attack Myths from 'The Shallows'

Before you get in the water this season, learn how to tell the shark-related facts from fiction in this new summer thriller.

On one level, The Shallows is not a bad survival film. Blake Lively plays a young woman reeling from family tragedy who finds solace through surfing and a secluded beach in picturesque Mexico… only to find her getaway morphed into a nightmare by a giant, man-eating shark.

The film is more Cast Away or 127 Hours than Sharknado or Lake Placid, with a serious tone and decent production values. The film aspires to be "Jaws for a New Generation," according to its backers, Columbia Pictures. But that comparison has some shark scientists madder than a great white on a line.

"This is a film 40 years behind its time," says Francesco Ferrettii, a shark researcher at Stanford who has penned an open letter to Columbia criticizing the film, along with six other scientists from several institutions.

"While this reference [to 1975's Jaws] no doubt works well to launch The Shallows, it is also a reference that deeply concerns us in the marine science community given the precarious state of global shark populations," the scientists wrote in their letter, noting that people kill an estimated 100 million sharks a year, driving a quarter of shark species to the status of threatened or worse.

The late Peter Benchley himself, who wrote the book Jaws was based on, regretted doing so after it caused many people to fear and hate sharks. (See "Sizing Up Sharks.")

"This mischaracterization spawned interest in popularizing recreational killing of sharks and bred apathy amongst the public regarding spikes in shark mortality associated with the global shark fin trade and bycatch of sharks in the commercial fishing industry," the scientists wrote.

The same thing could result from The Shallows, they argue.

Of course, another interpretation is that the movie is actually a revenge story, with the shark striking back at the human race for everything we have done to their kind and the ocean. There is a detail in the film that supports this theory (we won't give it away), but it's also possible such a nuanced reading would be lost on the majority of people who head to theaters for escapism and a relief from the summer heat.

This is Hollywood, folks, so we don't really expect everything on screen to behave as it does in the real world. Still, we thought it might be informative to look at some of the myths of shark attacks that the movie draws on. If nothing else, you might feel a little better when you step out onto the sand (or get into the bath, in the case of my friend's sister, who was terrified by the original Jaws.)

Myth 1: Sharks Are Cold-Blooded Killers That Come After People Like the Terminator

The idea of the shark intent on killing people can make exciting cinema, but it's far from reality, scientists caution.

"Jaws started at the boundary of reality and fiction, but it had nowhere else to go from there but down," says George Burgess, a shark attack expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "In an effort to one-up the last shark movie, they get more and more unreal."

The reality is that most shark attacks are caused by relatively small sharks, says Burgess (see where they happen). Instead of seeking out people to munch on, they are chasing their usual prey, which in most cases is fish. People splashing around can confuse the sharks, who may take an exploratory bite. When they realize it is human flesh—yuck—they usually get the heck out of there.

The few species of large sharks that do hunt man-sized prey, particularly tiger, bull and great whites (the species apparently featured in The Shallows), most likely bite people because we may act and look similar to seals, says Burgess. But the fact that sharks rarely take more than one bite also suggests they aren't satisfied with their choice, and are probably not trying to target us per se.

Myth 2: Sharks Leap Out of the Water to Knock People Off Boats, Rocks, etc.

This is a common trope in shark attack movies, because it makes them extra scary. You're not even safe out of the water.

But in reality, "we've never seen sharks do that," says Burgess. Great whites are known to hang out around the beach where seals are present, waiting for them to let their guard down. And they are sometimes seen leaping into the air to snag prey. But they don't grab them off the land.

"Sometimes we see killer whales doing that, but that's a special behavior by a special animal, and one that has a lot more brain cells than a shark," says Burgess.

Myth 3: Sharks Kill as Much as They Can as Fast as They Can

In Wyoming in March, a wolf pack took down 19 elk in a "surplus killing," in an effort that is thought to save up plentiful food for later use. But sharks aren't known to do that, says Burgess.

In fact, sharks frequently lose much of their catch to other sharks. The idea that they would try to take out as many people as possible in quick succession is pure fiction, says Burgess.

Myth 4: You Can Avoid a Shark Attack by Hiding in Jellyfish

This is unlikely, says Burgess, because shark skin is so tough (in fact, it is closely related to their teeth, and is where their teeth probably evolved from in the first place).

"The only place where jellyfish might have an effect is if it got in their eyes, but most sharks have tough membranes they can close over them, so they wouldn't worry about that."

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Myth 5: Surfers Are Fresh Meat

Surfing can put people into closer contact with sharks, as can spear fishing, diving, and a few other activities. A person on a surfboard can resemble a seal from a distance, and it's true there have been some high-profile exploratory bites on surfers, even during major competitions.

But studies show that a surfer in California has a 1 in 17 million chance of being bitten by a shark. "Your odds are higher of winning the lottery," the scientists wrote in their open letter.

And thanks in part to education campaigns, the risk has been dropping. In California, the chances of a surfer being bitten have dropped by 91 percent over the past six decades, the scientists wrote. (Get shark safety tips here.)

Myth 6: Sharks Are Hell-Bent on Revenge

The idea of the vengeful shark plays a role in the Jaws movies, and it may appear in The Shallows. Certainly, fish have a few bones to pick with human beings. But what's the reality?

We know sharks can learn. For instance, those that are fed by controversial baiting dives may learn to associate people with free food. But the idea that they could hold a grudge or seek revenge is without evidence, says Burgess.

"It's important that people remember fiction is fiction," he adds. "Sharks have much more to fear from us than we do from them."

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