How to speak ‘shark’

First published on Africa Geographic’s Blog

Interactions between humans and sharks are often mirrored by bad press. Recent research shows how the repeated use of words such as ‘monster’ and ‘attack’ can influence the way we perceive these ocean predators.

Most of you might remember Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws and Steven Spielberg’s subsequent movie in which the great white shark was referred to as a ‘man-eating killing machine’.

© Terry Goss/Wikipedia Commons

© Terry Goss/Wikipedia Commons

According to researchers Christopher Neff (University of Sydney, Australia) and Robert Hueter (Mote Marine Laboratory’s Centre for Shark Research, Florida, US), a broader and more fine-tuned vocabulary is needed to improve people’s general perception and understanding of sharks.

Misleading ‘facts’

It is not only imprecise terminology that has the potential to heighten our emotional response to sharky news pieces. On 2 May, the online portal Africa Check reviewed an ‘inaccurate and confusing’ article published on the BBC website. The report (which has now been partly corrected) suggested that South Africa is spending ‘millions of US dollars’ to trial the ‘world’s first environmentally friendly barrier shark net’ as a response to five shark attacks in the Western Cape in 2012.

Where had the BBC gone wrong?

For one, not ‘millions’ but tens of thousands of US dollars have been committed to the project. According to Alison Kock, research manager at Shark Spotters, the article also ‘fell short in explaining the difference between shark nets, designed to catch and kill sharks, and barrier nets …, designed to act like a fence.’

The most misleading piece of information, however, is that ‘five shark attacks’ allegedly took place last year. Jeremy Cliff, head of research at the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, says ‘there have been only two’ shark bites, one of them fatal. Click Africa Check for the review and BBC for the updated article.

How to speak ‘shark’

Neff explains that there is no point in using misleading ‘attack language’ when the encounter was, in fact, ‘friendly’. Here are his suggestions on how to render our vocabulary more specific:

– Shark sighting: a shark seen in proximity of people without physical contact.

– Shark encounter: physical contact is made between a shark and a person (or its surfboard/boat) without a bite.

– Shark bite: a bite occurs, causing minor to moderate injuries.

– Fatal shark bite: one or several bites resulting in fatal injuries.

Next time you go out for a surf or read a newspaper article, think twice before labelling a ‘shark encounter’ as something more dangerous than it actually was. You can find the complete study by Neff and Hueter on


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