Monday, September 20, 2010

More sharks -- or scary stories -- than ever

“It’s the season of the great white shark,” screamed an all-capital-letters headline Sunday in The Sacramento Bee. Silly me! With a sea kayak in the garage and a leaf rake in my hand, I was preparing for autumn and had forgotten all about the more deadly seasons.

A NorCal Yak post on August 19 described shark attacks on two California kayakers. Neither was killed but both were scared out of their wits. The bottom line: Shark attacks on the California coast are very rare, but most occur in the fall. A leading shark researcher told NorCal Yak that during this season, it’s wise not to dive, surf, or otherwise do your best imitation of a harbor seal in areas where attacks have occurred in the past.

Since then, at least a dozen blog and news reports have appeared on those two shark-bites-kayak incidents. As a former reporter and editor, I read them with an eye toward nuance and nonsense. Sort of the way a great white sizes up a pod of seals. Should I go for this one, because it’s closer? Or that one, because it’s fatter? California sea kayak

To be fair, it’s a difficult story to tell well. On one hand, you could hardly ignore it when a large shark chomped down on a kayak near Santa Barbara, while its veteran sea paddler admitted he was “screaming like a little girl.” Ditto for the incident a few days later near Santa Cruz, when a shark flipped an angler’s yak and took a bite out of his paddle. (Film at 11! Note scary photo from the Discovery Channel above, totally unrelated to either incident.)

On the other hand, reporters should fish a little deeper for perspective. Some mainstream media queried the shark researcher, who reported there have been about a dozen documented cases where sharks killed people (mostly non-kayakers) on the California coast in the last 58 years. That works out to about 0.2 fatalities a year, or the equivalent of one person’s ankle. Okay, maybe up to the calf. (There have been about 100 or so credible reports of fatal and non-fatal attacks in the same time, still a tiny statistic.)

So where does that leave you, news-wise, when hundreds of thousands of folks play in California surf annually, including several thousand paddlers, and never see a shark? In the Chronicle story, reprinted by The Bee, you simply contradict yourself: “The ferocious predators are out there now patrolling the coastline in what experts believe are increasing numbers.” In the very next line, an expert says: “There seem to be more sharks in the water, but we don’t have enough evidence to support that yet.”

To offset scientific quibbling, the Chronicle and Bee used the same underwater photo of a huge, snaggle-tooth great white swimming toward the camera – one photo is worth 1,000 scary words. The Bee caption notes it was taken in Mexico in 2006. The Chronicle's online caption leaves the impression that the shark might be off our coast right now. Fair and balanced.

If that’s not scary enough, the story referenced “ferocious predators” – a nice bite to that phrase – and warned: “…that bracing dip in the murky Pacific can also be a rather chilling gamble against a ghastly fate.” Hey, are we going swimming, shooting craps in Vegas, or making ballot choices?

My favorite, however, is from a breathless blog named “Fear Beneath.” On the Santa Barbara incident, it reported, “The infamous Gaviota Great White Shark has struck again!” and surmised that, “There seems to be a fifteen-foot-plus local Great White Shark off the Gaviota Coast…” Really – local resident? Well, the description sure narrowed it down. Especially with the bumper sticker on the shark’s tail that said, “My ferocious little predator is in Gaviota fish school.”

Okay, true confession time. When you’re a small-fry blog like NorCal Yak, you don’t net tons of reader hits – until you type the word “shark.” My August shark post drew hundreds of hits, even though it was fairly low on the hyperbole scale and didn’t show any blood in the water. The post even attracted a Google ad for Jim Cramer, the cable network guy who hypes Wall Street. Oh, now I see the blood in the water.

Second admission: NorCal Yak is going to the coast soon for a surf class. This could help make the point that shark attacks are rare, and kayakers who are careful face little risk. But really, it’s too late to cancel the class and get my money back. So I’ll keep an eye on my ankles, and everything above them, too.
© Glenn Brank 2010