Typically, seemingly villainous characters in fiction make their backslide into evil from good. Darth Vader of Star Wars fame was once a kindly Jedi, until he took a wrong turn along the way, defecting to the Dark Side. The opposite is true of people's perception of "villainous" sharks.
As early as the fifth century B.C., sharks were getting a bad rap. The Greek historian Herodotus described how sharks defeated an entire Persian war fleet. After rocks on the shore of Athos "dashed the ships to pieces," the sharks "seized and devoured" the hapless Persian sailors. Herodotus did not seem too broken up by the event, but it began a trend of portraying sharks as ruthless, cold-blooded killers.
Over the subsequent millennia, publishers have had a field day with sharks. For 19th-century European readers, one of the most memorable stories — akin to supermarket tabloids today — terrified readers with its wild account of a giant shark that devoured an entire family, kids and all. Nearly 100 years later, movie theaters worldwide were emblazoned with posters for scary shark flicks. They often showed the big fish with mouth agape, usually some hunk of flesh or blood dripping from the side.
At around the same time, newspapers began to put more emphasis on reports concerning shark attacks. Such attacks happen, of course, but not very often. Only a handful of people succumb to sharks each year. Twice the number of people — between 10 and 20 — die from dog bites each year, and that is just in the U.S. alone. But a "dog bites man" headline may not grab as much attention as one involving a predator that can have a couple of hundred teeth.
In 2005, a team of researchers from the University of Newcastle, Australia, analyzed how one particular species, the grey nurse shark, was portrayed in Aussie newspapers from 1969 to 2003. The study, published in the University of Idaho Library's Electronic Green Journal, found terms and adjectives used to describe the sharks ranged from "monsters," "soul-destroying glare," "sinister" and savage killer" on the negative side of the spectrum, with "puppy dogs of the sea," "humble," "sweetest" and "inoffensive" on the positive end.
The study concluded that "the incidence of grey nurse shark publications has increased dramatically from the year 2001 to the present." Over all the years listed, 82 percent of the editorial submissions were negative, whereas only 37 percent of the news stories had a positive bent. Still, the growing interest in this shark was clear. It appears to reflect heightening worldwide attention on sharks.
Steve Parker, author of The Encyclopedia of Sharks, thinks the public's image of sharks is on the upswing due to at least three factors. The first is that local and federal authorities continue to improve their efforts at controlling shark/human interactions with better sign postings at certain beaches, improved education, more stringent patrols and other solutions. The second is that more data from scientific research has been released, with countless additional studies on the way. "We can now view sharks like the real creatures that they are, in terms of behavior, feeding and courtship," Parker said.
Finally, he believes many people now feel "sympathy" for sharks. "They are the persecuted instead of the persecutors," he explained. In recent years, numerous shark populations have been depleted by well over 90 percent, with some species, like the smooth hammerhead, going down in number by an unfathomable 99 percent in certain regions. Commercial and recreational fisheries kill anywhere from 26 to 73 million sharks each year.