A new week is upon us, and that means a dumb new dumb internet trend has spawned: the rise of the "shark selfie".
A video taken recently shows a paddleboarder following behind a large shark off the coast of Huntington Beach in California, dipping his GoPro camera into the water to get a close-up of the animal’s gills and mouth.
This video isn’t the first – and probably won’t be the last – of its kind. The phrase “shark selfie” only began to gain traction in the summer of 2014, when a bizarre fake news story titled “Man Takes Selfie Moments Before Deadly Shark Attack" went viral. The photo was actually a Photoshopped image of Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz.
But since Wentz’s fake near-miss, the term has come barrelling into the lexicon, bringing with it a new cadre of thrill-seeking selfie-takers intent on getting that perfect shot at any price. Another Photoshopped image of an Australian teenager posing with what looked like a great white shark close behind him did the rounds last month. And a glance at the graph below shows that the term “shark selfie” has been gaining popularity:
With greater access to both outdoor gear and technology (especially waterproof GoPro cameras), people are getting closer and closer to sharks. A 2011 study by the International Shark Attack File reported that interactions between humans and sharks are on the rise.
Though shark attacks are infinitesimally rare (in New York City, you’re ten times more likely to be bitten by a human than by a shark), surface recreationists – meaning people on surfboards, paddleboards or flotation devices – are the ones most commonly involved in shark attacks and bites. And though the type of interaction certainly matters (whether the person is provoking, baiting or simply observing the shark), conservationists always urge the public to use caution when approaching any wild animal.
“Purposefully approaching a shark on something as flimsy as a paddleboard just to take a picture is a cultural phenomenon that will not end well,” says vocal shark conservationist David Shiffman.
The new trend does, however, represent a shift in the way people think about sharks.
Sharks’ negative public image has made things difficult for the people trying to protect them. Right now, 67 species of sharks are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Commercial fishing, accidental bycatch and the global trade in shark fin are all putting pressure on shark populations around the world – so much so that some 100 million sharks are being lost every year. For a long time, their reputation as the “serial killers” of the sea made it hard to rally popular support to save them.
But perhaps the “shark selfie” trend is also an indicator of inquisitiveness replacing fear, and perhaps a sign that the needle may be tipping in favour of saving sharks. Widespread backlash against fear-mongering shows like those featured annually during Discovery’s “Shark Week” has prompted the network to consider revising the nature of its shark programming to include less scare tactics and more science. And when a shark cull is proposed after a shark bites a swimmer, there is usually a loud and angry group of scientists and advocates to oppose it.
But it’s still a double-edged sword: just because people are beginning to appreciate sharks doesn’t mean they should start to approach them in the wild, cautions Shiffman.
“It's great that so many people no longer think of sharks as mindless killing machines, but we need to remember that they are large, wild, predatory animals,” he says. “You don't need to fear them, but [you should] treat them with respect.”