On Sunday, Australian champion surfer Mick Fanning was competing in the finals of the J-Bay Open tournament in South Africa when a shark surfaced next to him. Fanning fought the shark until it swam away. A boat came by and picked him up, unharmed.
The whole incident was captured on film (above), and it's pretty stunning. The original footage, titled "Shark attacks Mick Fanning at J-Bay Open," has more than 17 million views on YouTube. It's been covered as a story of Fanning's heroic escape from a shark bent on eating him.
But experts say Fanning may not have been attacked at all. And what this video shows is actually not so much a shark attack, but rather a distillation of the many ways humans misunderstand sharks and overhype their threat — thus helping to drive them into endangerment.
What really happened on Sunday?
"If Mick Fanning wants to call it a shark attack, that's absolutely his right," says Christopher Neff, a political scientist who researches media coverage of sharks and shark policy. But, Neff adds, the media shouldn't call it that.
"The reality is that a shark, in great proximity to a person, didn't bite the person, didn't bite their board, swam away — and [yet] we have gone full tilt on 'shark attack.'
"That's not what sharks do when they're trying to bite people. You don't see all that splashing," Neff says.
He's not the only one who's skeptical that the video shows a shark attack.
"Based on the footage we’ve seen, we don’t know its intentions. It looks like the shark was trying to get out of the situation as fast as Mark [sic] was," Alison Kock, a marine biologist at the University of Cape Town, told the Guardian.
Andrew Ingram, a spokesperson for the National Sea Rescue Institute also quoted in the Guardian, was more blunt: "To call it an attack is inaccurate. I’ve watched the slow motion footage very carefully. I think the shark was coming for a look."
How we misunderstand sharks
Shark attacks are pretty rare events. The United States has the highest number of shark attacks in the world — but as Brad Plumer points out, dogs killed about 33 times as many people as sharks in the US between 2001 and 2013.
You wouldn't get that impression from reading most coverage of sharks — including that of this video.
"Sharks are demonized even when they don't bite us," Neff says. This "perpetuates a stereotype that creates a gateway problem for governments: when humans and sharks interact ... governments feel like, 'Let's go kill the individual shark.'"
The key issue here, according to Neff's research, is the way these events get covered in the media.
"When these things get characterized as shark attacks ... it creates a domino effect," Neff says. "All of it is predicated on assuming that sharks are intent on getting humans."
That comes through in how we see the above video: as an animal attacking a human, rather than a human and animal accidentally colliding, which is probably what actually happened. That misperception feeds into public fear of sharks, which contributes to a hostility to sharks that is helping lead to their decline from Earth's oceans.
The eradication of sharks
Sharks are in danger. According to one of the authors of a paper published last year on at-risk ocean species, "Sharks and their relatives are facing an alarmingly elevated risk of extinction." More specifically, "In greatest peril are the largest species of rays and sharks, especially those living in shallow water that is accessible to fisheries."
Because sharks keep fish populations in balance, that could have larger effects.
"A growing body of scientific research indicates that sharks play a critical role in maintaining marine ecosystem health," scholars Erika J. Techera and Natalie Klein write in their book on shark policy.
The world is trying to save sharks from this threat. It's been difficult — sharks migrate, meaning any response requires cooperation across many governments. But there has been some progress. And part of that has been challenging people's sense that sharks are more dangerous than they really are.
"We're going through a unique phase of the public debate about sharks," Neff says, "which says that it's okay to protect sharks even if that increases a certain level of risk for the public."
But the media still has tremendous influence over public perceptions of sharks, and that makes it hard for policymakers to protect an animal that is so widely feared.
"This is legitimately hard for politicians," Neff concludes. It's "difficult for governments to protect a species that they know may harm the public."
Something as high-profile as the Fanning video can play into that by furthering misconceptions about the dangers of sharks. The fact that the video likely does not even show a real shark attack is a pretty good symbol of how we're misunderstanding this animal and thus the issue of how to deal with them.
"How much do you protect a species that's being demonized by the media?" Neff asks. "When seven sharks bite people, [that has] implications for millions of sharks that year."