Recent shark attacks in Hawaii are the current subject of conversation when we call family members on the mainland. In the past few months, a shark attack on Maui and a surfer bitten by a tiger shark in the Big Island’s northern waters were reported nationally as major stories. The focus of media attention makes it sound as if Hawaii’s waters are somehow increasingly dangerous. And they are to a degree, as more people than ever are enjoying snorkeling, surfing, fishing, boating and other water-related activities in the islands. But drowning poses a far greater hazard for snorkelers than sharks. In 2014 there were 8 million visitors to the islands and only three reported shark attacks. Since 2013, only two shark-related fatalities, both around Maui. Compare that to an average of 60 drownings each year, which usually occur because someone entered the water without knowledge of how to snorkel, kayak, or surf safely.
When I was a state park interpreter in the mid-1970s and doing live snake programs routinely, I would ask my audience which was more dangerous to humans – sharks, venomous snakes, bees, autos, aspirin, alcohol or tobacco. Both children and adults would guess that snakes and sharks are more dangerous to people than the other items (all of which are more deadly). The news media at that time reported every venomous snakebite and rarely brought up the medical statistics related to it, about ten deaths a year nation-wide. Two deaths from sharks worldwide was the average. Compared to 350,000 deaths annually in the U.S. from tobacco use, the danger of snakebite or shark attack was minimal. Snakes and sharks provide benefits that far outweigh any dangers and they are essential in healthy ecosystems.
Fear is a powerful persuader. Just look at the sensational headlines and stories that grip the nation. We often don’t look beneath the headlines unless the reporter does a very responsible job of helping us understand the real dangers involved. Great journalists put stories in perspective but the tabloid press mentality of many digital and print media reporters leads to amplification of the dangers and make nature seem more dangerous than our personal drinking habits or driving behaviors.
Interpreters help reveal nature’s mysteries and important stories, but safety is always an important messaging opportunity. People want to survive the experience and ignorance of the real dangers in the environment can threaten that. We can help people understand the real hazards of recreation and how they might behave to be more safe and treat wildlife and the environment more responsibly. It’s a chance to teach some natural history and reveal the incredible benefits of predators in their natural roles in the ocean or on land.
Tourism is the big economic driver for Hawaii so various sources publish excellent information on the real dangers in the water and the value of sharks. Interpreters who are skilled at getting in front of the news cameras should let media sources know when they get the story wrong and help them share a better understanding of how we may all live, work and play safely in the outdoors.
– Tim Merriman