Yesterday we read an interview with George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File. The very name of the file – containing the word “attack” – says something about our view of sharks. When writing here, I try to avoid using the phrase “shark attack” (sometimes it’s impossible to come up with an alternative!) because very often what happens when a shark bites a person isn’t an attack: it’s a case of mistaken identity involving teeth, or it’s an exploratory test to see whether you’re one of its prey items, for example. This is not to minimise the experience of a person who is bitten by a shark, but to acknowledge that from the shark’s perspective something else entirely may be going on.
Christopher Neff, the Australian researcher whose talk Tony and I listened to at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre a year or two ago, has recently published a report with Dr. Robert Hueter, proposing a classification system that will promote more accurate reporting on interactions between humans and sharks.
The researchers propose three categories of incidents involving sharks: sightings, encounters, and bites (fatal and non fatal). They state that they are reluctant to use the phrase “shark attack” unless the motivation of the shark involved is not in doubt in the opinion of experts – a rare situation. These labels are intended to assist the public in gauging the level of risk entailed in going into the sea. The use of more accurate language would also aid discussion of the conservation of sharks.
What do you think? Is it all semantics, or are the words important?