How a Viral Shark-Petting Video Is Dangerously Misleading

A video a man petting a lemon shark doesn't adequately address the dangers of such an action. Shark Addicts / YOUTUBE

A video showing a shark being "petted" by scuba diver Randy Jordan, and which purports to suggest the animal has an affectionate bond with the man, is making the rounds.

The 8-foot-long lemon shark, named Blondie, "recognizes me as soon as I go in the water and runs over to me," Jordan tells the Dodo. "It almost looks like she's smiling. She doesn't want food, she just wants to be petted."

"If people knew how really nonaggressive sharks are as a species, they would lose the stigma they got from watching Jaws," he continued. "When people see this, they start liking sharks."

It is indeed a noble goal to get across the message the sharks are not human-eating monsters, as they are often portrayed. After all, humans kill around 100 million sharks per year, whereas there are only around six unprovoked fatal shark attacks on humans annually. That's a tiny, tiny number—you are 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark, for example.

However, filming yourself petting a lemon shark is not the best way to go about getting out this message, says George Burgess, with the Florida Museum of Natural History. Burgess also heads the International Shark Attack File, which keeps record on human-shark interactions.

For one thing, lemon sharks have been known to attack people unprovoked. There are at least 10 recorded incidents of this happening, according to shark attack file, though they have never killed a person. The animals have "enlarged teeth made for biting and shearing," and definitely should not be touched, he says. Rubbing and petting the shark "would be the equivalent of going up and scratching a wild lion behind the ears," Burgess says.

Even a more docile species like a nurse shark, which is often found off Florida and which comes when food is given, shouldn't be touched. For example, there have been 44 recorded, provoked nurse shark attacks on humans in the past few decades. And they bite in "situations exactly like this," when a person is touching and feeding them.

Lemon sharks are not aggressive, but there are records of them attacking people unprovoked. Albert Kok via Wikimedia Commons

Although no feeding is evident in this video, entitled "Shark Love," Jordan has posted many other videos showing himself and others feeding sharks. It's illegal to feed sharks in Florida waters, and Jordan has been fined on at least one occasion for doing this before.

Furthermore, Burgess explains that the sharks are acting like this because they've been trained to take food from humans. Sharks that haven't been fed by humans would never behave this way—they would flee from humans rather than seek them out. Blondie's approach to Jordan is clearly a conditioned behavior, which she does before feeding, Burgess says. She doesn't do this because she likes to be petted, but because she's excited about getting food. Unlike cats and dogs, which are social and groom each other, sharks are solitary and don't groom one another or seek human attention.

"This idea of the shark demanding love or attention is…a huge step of anthropomorphic thought," a symptom of "projecting human emotions on the animals," Burgess says.

"As a conservationist working to reduce the global mortality of sharks, I try to look for anything that might help shift public perception of sharks as monsters and eating machines to wildlife that should be cared about and protected," says Rick MacPherson, founder of an organization called Sustainable Shark Diving. That's why shark diving is important, because it gives people "an opportunity to meet sharks on their own terms and see that so much of our perceptions and attitudes about them are overblown, Hollywood fluff."

But MacPherson says he thinks this video goes too far. "Ultimately, these are wild animals that deserve our respectful distance as well. Perhaps this animal initiated the contact, but I'm not convinced that such contact…is in the best interest of wildlife or the diver. We have decades of data that such interactions don't often end well for the wildlife or the human involved."