The Hysteria Over Shark Attacks vs. The Killing Fields of Chicago

Surfers and swimmers return to the ocean Sunday, July 6, 2014, one day after a swimmer was bitten by a great white shark off the Southern California beach city of Manhattan Beach, Calif. John Antczak/AP

On Saturday morning in the waters off Manhattan Beach, Calif., an innocent creature was attacked… and then bit an unfortunate swimmer before returning to the deep.

The news-site headlines (CNN, Huffington Post, TMZ, The Big Lead, among others) led with “Shark Attack” on Monday morning, which was partly accurate. One day earlier, a man fishing off the Manhattan Beach Pier hooked a seven-foot great white shark. A great white of that length is a juvenile, by the way, not a one-fish, boat-sinking behemoth as was popularized in the 1975 film Jaws.

The shark had been thrashing for some 45 minutes, fighting for its life, before the fisherman released it. Soon afterward, a group of long-distance swimmers in the midst of a two-mile workout happened to cross the path of the  injured and agitated shark. The creature lunged from below at one of them, Steven Robles, 50, of Lomita, Calif., whose awful screams can be heard quite clearly on this video made by a bystander on the pier.

“The shark came up surface from the bottom, I saw him swimming right in front of me then he made a very sharp left and lunged right at my chest,” Robles, who suffered a single bite wound to the chest that, while traumatic, left no long-term damage, told local television station KTLA. “I was staring eyeball to eyeball with this shark.”

Robles’s wounds were obviously painful, but also superficial. They required stitches but not surgery. And yet on Monday morning the aforementioned websites could not resist using the two most clickable words this side of Kate Upton: “Shark Attack.” USA Today was admirably restrained, stating accurately, “Shark Bites Swimmer off California Beach.”

Meanwhile in Chicago, 82 people were shot during the Fourth of July weekend. At least 14 of those gunshot victims were fatally wounded, while some remain in critical condition, so the death toll may very well rise.

Compare the figures: 14 dead in Chicago from one long weekend of violence. Great white-inflicted fatalities in California number 13, but that death toll dates back to 1950. Great whites have killed fewer swimmers in California, a state with 840 miles of coastline, through the past 12 United States presidential administrations than Chicagoans killed one another last weekend.

Will Drive-By Shooter Week be commencing on The Discovery Channel any time soon? Probably not.

The headline “Shark Attack” conjures images of Sheriff Brody, beet-red, waving his pistol recklessly – also on a Fourth of July weekend, by the way -- as he screams at bathers, “Get out of the water!” The word “attack” also implies intent, as if sharks are malevolent beasts trying to amass a body count. They aren’t. Sharks are hunters, not killers. Sharknado was just a movie.

Robles, who sustained the scare of his life, is an innocent victim. But so was the shark. Great whites are known to inhabit the waters off Manhattan Beach, which is just a few miles south of the Los Angeles International Airport, and have done so without incident for years. In this video, shot last November by a few paddle boarders approximately a mile or two north of where Robles was bitten, at least three great whites are all swimming no more than 100 yards offshore.

These sharks, all at least eight feet in length, may be curious about the paddleboarders, but they are also unprovoked. And so while the element of danger just below the surface is palpable, an actual attack never does transpire.

It’s ironic when you think about it. Those great whites, top-level predators in their marine habitat, encounter interlopers on their own turf. They had the capacity to inflict damage but instead exercised restraint.

In Chicago, 14 people were shot to death over the weekend.  

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