Why Sharks Wont Stop Us From Surfing
“Why am I doing this?” I asked myself as I waded out into the freezing cold waters of an empty Northern California beach in Humboldt County.
It was an overcast day and the murky green waters did not look appealing. To be honest the waves weren't even anything special, considering the spot had a history of shark attacks. But despite this knowledge, I ignored the protests of my amygdala (the part of our brain dealing with fear, fight and flight) and paddled out anyway into the murky abyss.
Being a surfer is a strange thing, almost like having a disease of some sorts. It’s hard for non surfers to understand our addiction, and it is an addiction in every sense of the word. Withdrawal occurs sometimes within a matter of days of no ocean activity. Relationships are impacted. Ask any surfer and he’ll have a history of appointments, deadlines, and social events that have been canceled due to a good swell.
It's hard to pinpoint when exactly this addiction starts; for some right after the first exhilarating wave they stand up on; for others maybe months into their surfing experience when something finally clicks. Either way once your hooked, there’s very little sans dramatic shifts in physical health that can stop you from fix after salty fix of ocean. And this includes the ‘man in the grey suit’ that we all gamble with every time we enter the waters.
The odds of a shark attack are said to be very low, statistically speaking. But statistics can be very misleading. As surfers we all know the “you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, than to be attacked by a shark” stat that is often thrown around. Often times we tell ourselves this mantra to calm that obnoxious amygdala when it tries to convince us not to paddle out.
But it doesn't take much thought to realize that this statistic is very flawed for surfers who are in the water daily compared to the total number of Americans who only wade into the water a couple of times a year and from which the statistic is calculated from. This article titled What are the Odds? explains it quite well. The odds shift from a one in 3.7 million chance of getting killed by a shark to a one in 25,000 chance when shifted from the total United States population to just the United States surfing population. Quite a big difference! That is about three times more than the one in 75,000 chance of being struck by lightning. So we might as well be dancing on mountain tops in lightning storms. However, the odds are still low compared to say the 1 in 12,000 chance of dying in a car accident in California.
But either way, we as surfers are going to continue surfing, despite any odds. These statistics only really effect someone who hasn't already been bitten (excuse the pun) by the surfing bug. Anyone already addicted to the sport is likely going to continue, after all it is an addiction.
Take the recent shark attack at Church, a popular surf spot in San Clemente and the countless other sightings that have occurred recently in the area for example and you will see that the line-ups continue to be crowded. Some might opt to surf further north or south of the area for a bit, but they aren't going to stop surfing altogether. An even better example is Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, where 20 attacks have happened since 2011 ( I’d like to know what the odds of a shark attack are there?). But despite the shark attacks and even bans from surfing there, people continue to surf and continue to get attacked. Even surfers that have been attacked by sharks continue surfing sans a limb or two. Why is this?
I asked myself this very same question on that cold and grey morning in Northern California. My answer, and I think a lot of others would agree with me, is that it is worth it. We would much rather risk life and limb to experience the freedom and sheer joy of surfing than to take a safer, less-risky life on land. And besides, is it any less risky on land? To live is to take risks and if you want to live a full and exciting life, then you'll end up taking more risks.
That doesn’t mean we won’t occasionally skip a surf due to shark sightings or opt out of high risk areas (though there are a few mad men that aren't phased). It also doesn't mean we will ignore our instincts, as most surfers can recount a time of feeling ‘spooked’ and going ashore early. But for the vast majority of us, we will never stop surfing despite sharing the waters with other apex predators. (though side note: Humans kill 100 million sharks per year. Who's the real apex predator here?)