Shark Week: Expert Debunks Six Misconceptions About Great Whites, Other Shark Species

For one week a year, people tune in to Discovery Channel for the specific desire to watch television shows dedicated entirely to sharks in an event known as Shark Week. While technology and research provide people with more information than ever before about the ocean predator, there are still many misconceptions about sharks—so Newsweek spoke to an expert to set the record straight.

Founder and Executive Director of the Shark Research Institute, Marie Levine, told Newsweek that there's "so much nonsense" written about sharks because of what she credited to a lack of understanding.

Filmmaker Woody Allen famously stated during the breakup scene in Annie Hall that relationships are like sharks, "It has to constantly move forward or it dies." While Allen's on-screen relationship with actress Diane Keaton was dead at that moment, Levine explained that a lack of a forward motion isn't always enough to kill a shark. Some species have to keep swimming in order to breathe, but other sharks are able to lay on the bottom of the ocean.

The idea of sharks needing to do a behavior constantly was also cause for the belief that they're always hungry, which was so untrue it made Levine laugh. She said most sharks eat rather rarely, and sharks who have just given birth don't eat at all out of fear they'll mistake their pup for lunch.

"Sharks in the open ocean, like oceanic white sharks, food may be pretty scarce out there so when they find it they will eat," she explained. Levine added the lack of food is why they're the species most implicated in attacking humans who find themselves in the water after a sea disaster.

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A surfer carries his board into the water next to a sign declaring a shark sighting on Sydney's Manly Beach, Australia, November 24, 2015. Marie Levine, Founder and Executive Director of the Shark Research Institute, debunked six misconceptions about sharks. David Gray/Reuters

Movie after movie has perpetuated the idea of sharks being "man-eaters" that can pose a threat to anyone who enters the water. However, Levine told Newsweek that if humans are worried about being killed by an animal, they should look to one much smaller: mosquitos.

"Mosquitos kill far more people than sharks," she said. "Family dogs kill far more people than sharks. Maybe 10 people worldwide are killed by sharks."

The great white shark was been given the fear-inducing nickname "Jaws," but Levine disagreed that the large shark is the most dangerous species of shark out there. The great white shark may look more menacing than a bull or tiger shark, but when it comes to bites, looks can be deceiving.

"I personally would rather be bitten by a white shark than either a bull or a tiger because usually there's not the tissue damage," Levine told Newsweek. She said the reasoning behind her bite preference is that a great white shark will bite and then release, whereas bull and tiger sharks bite and shake their head, tending to cause more tissue damage.

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A great white shark swims in Shark Alley near Dyer Island, South Africa on July 8, 2010, in Gansbaai, South Africa. Marie Levine, Founder and Executive Director of the Shark Research Institute, debunked six misconceptions about sharks. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Unlike in the movies, when people are thrashing and screaming, Levine explained that though some people do feel pain when they're attacked, there are times when people are bitten and don't feel anything at all.

"A white shark [you could possibly not feel] but it totally depends on the circumstance and what the person was doing," she explained. "And then some of the little sharks might bite a toe."

Levine added that a "fair number" of shark bites happen when surfers jump off their boards into the path of a shark. Since the shark can't swim backward, it "lashes out," which isn't considered to be an "attack."

As for humans turning the table and taking a chomp out of a shark, Levine highly advised against it. While the consumption of shark meat dates back to the 1300s for its alleged medicinal purposes, Levine said eating shark could actually be detrimental to your health.

"Absolutely not, no, quite the opposite," Levine declared after she was asked if eating shark has medicinal value. "Shark meat is extremely high in mercury, [Polychlorinated biphenyl]. No, it's not safe to eat."

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A bull shark swims at the Ocearium in Le Croisic, western France, on December 6, 2016. Marie Levine, Founder and Executive Director of the Shark Research Institute, debunked six misconceptions about sharks. LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

As someone who has studied sharks for years, including getting in the water with them, Levine described the ocean animal to Newsweek as a "swimming sculpture," and had some advice for how beaches can cut down on unpleasant interactions between humans and sharks.

"Municipalities should not have surfing and swimming beaches on the same beaches where they allow shark fishing," she said. "The same thing around fishing piers. They should not allow swimming and surfing."

Levine agreed with the analogy that it was a little bit like leaving food out at a campsite in the woods and then wondering why a bear attacks a person. In 2017, there were only 53 unprovoked attacks in the United States and none of them were fatal, according to the Florida Museum.

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A sandbar shark swims overhead in the aquarium in Valencia, Spain. Marie Levine, founder and executive director of the Shark Research Institute, debunked six misconceptions about sharks. Paul Hanna/Reuters