It's not hard to see why this shark-and-surfer drone photo had thousands of people hitting the share button this week (over 8,000 shares in just a single day on Facebook alone):

Image: Evan Adamson/used with permission

The surfer's daring hang ten with a shark has been getting all sorts of responses from commenters online – from fear and anger to awe and admiration. But there's a problem: this image is not real.

Surfer and filmmaker Evan Adamson first posted the composite on his Instagram page with the hashtags #photoshop and #PeopleWillThinkItsReal. And people did.

It took only a couple of hours for popular Facebook pages to take the bait.

"I thought it was both hilarious and artistically compelling," says Adamson, whose friend made the composite from his original image. "I posted it as more of a hypothetical situation, using the caption, 'what would you do,' and even tagged [the Photoshop Instagram account] in the description." 

Adamson's mash-up may have been designed to draw attention to how easily fishy stories of "monster" sharks can spread online, but the reactions to his image have highlighted something else: there's a lot of confusion about these top predators out there. From the streams of comments on social media, we've picked out the most common questions to clear things up a bit. 

1. Is this a whale shark?

A surprising number of people asked this question. And the answer is no.

This shark is a great white. Filter-feeding whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea – but aside from their size, these behemoths are also easily distinguished by their pattern of white spots and their squared-off heads.

Other (incorrect) guesses in the comments included nurse shark, tiger shark and basking shark

One of the best things you can do to remain "shark safe" in the water is to get to know the species common in your area.

2. Do great white sharks even get that big?

Actually, yes – or close to it. The largest white shark seen in South African waters, spotted in Gansbaai (a hotspot for the species) back in 1987, was between 5.6 and 6 metres in length. Most individuals, however, fall somewhere between two and five metres.

Guadalupe's famed "Deep Blue" remains one of the biggest white sharks on record, measuring in at about six metres (20-plus feet). It's possible that these animals can grow slightly bigger than Deep Blue – up to 6.4 metres – but that's a matter of debate among shark experts.

Sightings of such heavyweights are rare, but when we do see them, these record-setters tend to be female. Because it takes these ladies up to 12 years to reach sexual maturity, each encounter with a large individual is a good sign for the species.

3. Could a big shark like this great white swallow you whole?

Let's start with the fact that people are not on the menu. And even when it comes to prey that sharks seek out, the single-gulp solution is not popular. These predators can't choke, but swallowing supersized food can be dangerous for them as it causes lethargy.

Back in 2014, the carcass of a white shark was found to contain six Cape fur seals, and that hefty meal didn't end well – it was the likely reason for the animal's demise. Scientists have seen similar deaths among white sharks that gorge on whales.

As for the even bigger whale shark, it might have one of the widest mouths in the animal kingdom, but its throat is roughly the size of a grapefruit. These giants couldn't swallow a human even if they wanted to.


Top header image: Stib/Flickr