New research from scientists at Australia's Bond University appears to be the latest victim of shoddy reporting of the 'sharkmania' variety.

"Sharks are nine times more likely to kill men than women," reports the The Telegraph. "... meaning women are statistically more likely to survive a shark attack," adds the Daily Mail. Not quite, guys ... 

Face-palm. Image:Alexandraperry1/Flickr

The new study, which will be published this week in the journal Coastal Management, is a detailed report on shark bites over some thirty years that aims to quiet shark attack hysteria (which, I might add, is largely driven by this particular brand of media exaggeration) by laying out clear information about where in the world unprovoked bites happen, how often they happen and how those patterns are changing.

The results do show that historically men have been bitten by sharks way more than women have (they represent 89 percent of the fatalities) – but this does not mean that sharks have a 'nomnomnom' taste for testosterone, or that women are more likely to survive in the unlikely event of an attack.

"You can’t really say that women are more likely to survive a shark bite than men, unless you know if they are engaging in the same activities and at the same rates," says California State University, Long Beach shark biologist Dr. Chris Lowe.

According to the paper, surfing, swimming, scuba diving and spear-fishing were the most frequent activities associated with unprovoked bites.

"I don’t necessarily think this is such a surprising finding," notes Lowe. "It is quite likely that men are more often bitten by sharks because they are in the water more often than women.  But, more importantly, the men are probably engaging in more risky ocean-use activities than women. Another and even more likely explanation for this is [that] women are smarter and know better than to put themselves in those situations," he says light-heartedly (I will not argue there). 

Though women are certainly making a serious mark on the world of water sports (go, badass female ocean junkies, go) it's still a largely male-dominated space (ergo men are participating in 'high risk' activities more often than women) – and remember, this study covers thirty years of data. 


The study's author, professor Daryl McPhee, echoed Lowe's sentiment, adding that males have also been found to be disproportionately represented in drownings and a number of other forms of accidental death.

The real factors that affect who survives a shark bite – like the type of shark doing the biting, the location of the bite on the body and the victim's proximity to emergency medical help - are not gender specific. 

This is another great example of the media turning a real statistic, from real research, into a not-so-real headline. Not only does this give our favourite 'jawsome' predators a bad rep, but it also overshadows Mcphee's goal in collecting this data in the first place: to drive a better understanding and a less sensational way of reporting shark bites.

"The vivid nature of a shark bite ensures a high degree of media reporting and public concern, even though most shark bites result in very minor injuries only," writes Mcphee. "...Increased media coverage of a low-risk scenario can increase the level of risk perceived by the public."

It's a very normal (and very beneficial) animal instinct to be afraid of something that can potentially 'end you'. But when that fear is boosted by headlines like "Stay out of the water! If you're a man, that is", we move from being risk-cautious to causing damage (just think about Western Australia's recent shark cull, which was implemented despite the opposition of over 100 scientists).

"Responses to the [often inflated] hazard that shark bites pose involve public policies and management approaches that contend with the needs of public safety ... These responses can include the permanent or seasonal deployment of fishing equipment (shark mesh nets and drumlines) that deliberately target sharks adjacent to populated areas."

Nets and ill-managed drumlines have a significant impact on not just sharks, but a range of marine animals, explains McPhee. "A future focus of addressing the interactions between humans and sharks lies in further education of water users ... Understanding the media and encouraging a more objective and less sensational reporting of unprovoked fatal shark bites can potentially contribute to the overall adoption of management approaches with less impact on marine species of conservation concern."

So, men of the world (and women too): don't believe everything you read ... and just keep swimming.

Top header image: jojo 77/Flickr