Shark Week 2014: The Good, the Meh, and the Very, Very Ugly

To start, a warm welcome to any followers or visitors who have found us from our selection as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” pick! I’m thrilled to have been featured and hope you’ll stick around to geek out about sharks with me and support the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

Folks, another Shark Week has come and, at the time of this writing, is almost gone, and with it a veritable sea (bad pun!) of criticism and conjecture about the direction the programming has taken. When I first wrote about my personal disappointments with the premiere show, I knew that a long week of episodes lay ahead that could either help redeem this ratings juggernaut in my mind, or further convince me that all the Discovery Channel is interested in is schlock, not science.

One overarching criticism: the titles of shows. They are the TV version of click-bait. Zombie Sharks?! Jaws Strikes Back?! Spawn of Jaws?! Sharkageddon? Man, I would love to have been a fly on the wall at those marketing meetings.

In the end, I’m left with mixed feelings. I saw some shows that fascinated me. I saw some shows that disgusted me. So here’s my final round-up of Shark Week 2014: The Good, the Meh, and the Very, Very Ugly.

The Good:

“Jaws Strikes Back”-This is what I tune in to Shark Week for. The footage from the Remus SharkCam was fantastic, new, and thrilling. I loved the passion of the scientists, and the realistic portrayal of an expedition. When the SharkCam was unexpectedly damaged by the white sharks, the whole project was almost finished. That’s real! Money and funding is a genuine concern for these scientists, and I liked seeing that reality. It felt like inside information. And how about the footage of those vertical dives? And the massive, pregnant females? So cool.

“Alien Sharks”-Weird-looking, little-seen, deep-sea species of shark. That is my sweet spot. I loved the excited young scientist at the forefront of the episode and his obvious enthusiasm for his work. No overly-theatrical ominous soundtrack or special effects. I’m glad someone at the Discovery Channel figured out that when you’re looking at creatures like this, no extra frills are needed:

Image Credit: Discovery Channel

Image Credit: Discovery Channel

“Zombie Sharks”: Super dumb name for a really cool phenomenon called “Tonic Immobility”. Points added for gorgeous footage. Points deducted for calling one moment with divers and a large school of gray sharks “a real life Sharknado”.

“Spawn of Jaws”: I’m so fascinated by this topic. I thought this was a great episode start to finish, from the heart-pounding initial tagging of the pregnant female, to her route and timing being so surprising to the scientist at the helm of the research, and even poor Paul Walker. I always loved that he supported sharks and marine conservation in a hands-on, non-flashy way. We didn’t get to see the live birth of a white shark, but that’s okay. It’s science, not cinema. And it’s nice to be reminded of the mystery that still surrounds these creatures.

The Meh*:

*I’m categorizing the following episodes as “Meh” (that’s the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug) based on the fact that while they didn’t hold my interest completely, they also didn’t incite my wrath for gross mishandling of their subject matter.

“Monster Hammerhead”: Nice to see this beautiful species getting a little attention, but I’m not overly keen on the whole “We are looking for ONE.GIANT.SHARK. that may or may not exist based on local myth and legend” thing. It’s played out. A shark doesn’t have to the biggest of its kind to be cool, guys.

“Lair of the Mega Shark”: Ditto on the legend-hunters theme. And while we’re at it, did some parts of this feel a little stagey to anyone else? Like the scene of the guy staring at the video monitor rubbing his red eyes and reaching for his coffee as if to insinuate hours of fruitless searching, and then suddenly the unearthly large shadow flashes across the screen.  Do I detect a hint of scripting here? If I’m wrong, I’m going to say it’s the Discovery Channel’s fault for inundating their audience with so much docudrama nonsense that I have to doubt the veracity of everything they air.

“I Escaped Jaws 2”: Listen, even I understand they need at least one episode per year that’s nothing but harrowing accounts of shark attack survivors recalling their narrow escapes. I don’t mind there being one special dedicated to this topic, especially since almost every survivor goes on to express their lack of hatred for sharks, and in some cases, their increased respect and awe of them. It is what it is.

“Sharkageddon”: A recent uptick in attacks in Hawaii should make for compelling TV. And while I liked the inclusion of a local “water man” with a vested interest in the safety of his area in the episode for human interest and a personal perspective, I would have liked more focus on scientists in the field spearheading the effort to find out what’s behind the recent incidents.

 The Very, Very Ugly:

“Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine”: In addition to my scathing critique of this episode in the previous blog, I’d also like to add my distaste for the title. Wrath? Sharks are capable of Biblical sins? I had no idea! Thanks Shark Week!

“Megalodon: The New Evidence”: No. Nope. Pass. Not going to watch it. Not sorry. I don’t want to add to ratings that will only convince the bigwigs at the Discovery Channel that this is the right way to go.

If this trend toward the hokey, melodramatic fiction continues, next year we could be treated to “Land Shark: Gluttony of the Vengeful Legend”.

I wish I were kidding.

We Need to Talk About Shark Week…

So.

Yesterday I caught up on the Shark Week feature, “Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarine” as I was traveling during the premiere. The show began re-airing at 5 PM. At 6:45 PM I realize I have seldom known two hours to pass so slowly.

When I had the idea to blog throughout Shark Week, it wasn’t without a modicum of trepidation. There’s been a trend in recent years, in my opinion, toward the cheap and sensational when it comes to this high-ratings week of dedicated shark programming. I didn’t think it could get worse than last year’s dismal “Megalodon” docudrama.

I was so very wrong.

From the outset, this B-movie, fear-mongering fiction-disguised-as-documentary set out to play on every fear and myth that exists about sharks, down to–and this is a direct quote– their “insatiable taste for human blood”.

Seriously, Shark Week?

Unlike “Megalodon”, which at least focused on a long-extinct ancestral species of shark, the villain of this tawdry tale is a white shark, a species still trying to make a public-image comeback from 1975’s “Jaws”.

I don’t care enough to parse through the details of this two hour farce. Full disclosure, I started to tune it out after a while. What bothers me is the irresponsibility of this kind of programming.

What bothers me is the fact that the Discovery Channel wastes their considerable budget, resources, talents, and precious viewer attention on this kind of nonsense instead of showing us some real science.

Show me some actual footage of real, gorgeous sharks. Show me some of the dedicated scientists in the field, who I am privileged to learn more about this week through great organizations like the AWSC, Shark4Kids, and Beneath the Waves.

New discoveries are happening daily. This is exciting, forward-moving, sexy science. And I believe that kind of programming can get high ratings.

Nothing the Discovery Channel can manufacture using unknown actors and a studio set could possibly rival some of the footage that was revealed last night when we ventured out with Dr. Greg Skomal and the Remus SharkCam. That’s what I want to see. And judging by the huge backlash towards the premiere, I am not alone.

So get your act together, Shark Week. I’ll be tuning in, along with millions of other viewers, hoping for something better tonight. Don’t let us down.

In the meantime, weigh in here: What do you think of this kind of programming airing during Shark Week?

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Tote…

This week marks the official start of summer, and though I love to read all year round, in my opinion there’s no better time to settle in with a good book than a gorgeous day at the beach. And nothing goes better with a dip in the waves and a stroll on the shore than some really awesome shark books. Well, nothing besides popsicles.

To that end, here are some of my favorite tomes dedicated to our most beloved apex predator, best enjoyed with a decent SPF and a cold beverage.

Oh, and one more quick thing: should you wish to purchase any of these great books, this former publishing professional entreats you to please step away from the amazon and visit your local independent bookseller. Wander a little, shop local, and support the noble book purveying profession. Here’s a wonderful resource to find an indie near you: http://www.indiebound.org/indie-store-finder

 

Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks by Richard G. Fernicola, M.D.

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This excellent book is a detailed unraveling of the mysterious shark attacks that took place over a period of twelve days in New Jersey in the summer of 1916, in which four people were killed and a fifth terribly injured. This strange series of shark attacks, long assumed to be the work of a lone great white, served as major inspiration for Peter Benchley when crafting his novel, “Jaws”. Using scientific knowledge about shark behavior acquired in the years since the attacks as well as primary source material, the author attempts to answer pervading questions about what took place in 1916.  What species was involved? Was it the work of one shark? Why so many violent interactions with swimmers in such a short span of time in one location?

My Rating: 4 out of 5 fins. A fantastic history lesson mixed with a detective story, and absolutely never boring. A must if you’re visiting the beaches of the Jersey Shore this summer.

 

The Secret Life of Sharks: A Leading Marine Biologist Reveals the Mysteries of Shark Behavior by A. Peter Klimley, Ph.D.

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This books sets out to debunk many myths about shark behavior, and the author especially wants to disabuse readers of the notion that sharks are mindless eating machines, willing to take a bite out of anything they come across. Klimley gives the reader a front row seat alongside him as he details a career of observing many different species of sharks and cataloging their fascinating behaviors.

My rating: 3 out of 5 fins. Great photographs and helpful illustrations bring the sometimes dry and scientific narrative to life. For the serious and patient reader and shark enthusiast.

 

The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks by Susan Casey

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I love this book. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I love this book so much that last October I found myself trying not to lose my lunch like every other shark nut with me as our vessel rocked in stomach-churning swells for 10 hours, just yards from the forbidding and forbidden Farallon Islands where Casey’s story takes place. A lifelong swimmer and journalist, Casey was bedridden with an illness when a documentary on the white sharks of the Farallon Islands captivated her. Just like that, she was on a voyage that would take her to one of the least accessible and wildest places in America, entrenched with passionate and dedicated scientists who were privy to the behaviors of the biggest white sharks in the world. This book has it all; an outlier’s perspective (note the lack of letters after Casey’s name-she’s writing for the laymen because she’s one too), thrilling encounters, narrow escapes, and even political and environmental controversy.

My rating: 5 out of 5 fins. Go get this book. Just call me before you book a trip to the Farallons. We should talk first.

 

Jaws by Peter Benchley

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I know, okay? I know. Just hear me out.

Yes, this novel and subsequent blockbuster film were responsible for decades of anti-shark feeling in America and spawned a great many harmful myths about these largely misunderstood animals. But this is also a simply brilliant novel-thrilling, terrifying, nuanced, and I believe especially interesting to read today in light of the white sharks recent re-establishment in the waters of Cape Cod. Benchley’s book is both an age old Leviathian-eque man vs. monster story and a sophisticated account of a “modern” resort community’s battle to stay alive in the wake of a problem both primal and political.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 fins. Pulpy, scary, fun and different from the film. Not going say who’s involved but there’s a pretty juicy affair in these pages that never made it to the big screen…

 

Happy Sharky Summer Reading, friends!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wonder Years

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“I need the sea because it teaches me,
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
if it’s a single wave or its vast existence,
or only its harsh voice or its shining
suggestion of fishes and ships.
The fact is that until I fall asleep,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.”
~Pablo Neruda, “The Sea”

I don’t remember a time when I did not have this curious love for sharks.

What I do remember is Saturday mornings tucked into my Dad’s side watching nature specials on the couch. I remember paging through his college science books, with illustrations of great white sharks (comically/tragically) labeled as “Maneater.” I remember visiting The Living Seas restaurant at Disney World when I was six, staring rapt at the glass and the creatures gliding by like aliens from another planet, feeling deliciously terrified and besotted all at once.

Right through adolescence, any poster of Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1997 had to compete for wall space with my “World’s Most Dangerous Sharks” chart. My friends thought it was super weird. I really didn’t care.

Now that I’m a mother, and raising a child who is fortunate enough to live a block from the ocean, I realize how important it is to me to pass along to my son this love of the sea, and respect for all of its inhabitants and the delicate but vital role each creature plays in the great drama of the ocean’s ecosystem.

I brought home my sweet new baby to a nursery decked out in an ocean theme: happy orange fish curtains, a reproduction London Aquarium poster from the 1930s, and books, books, books about the marine world.

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And we’ve gone on from there. My son loves to walk to the beach at the end of the street and tell me which shells belong to mussels, and which to the razor clams. He loves to talk about whale sharks and basking sharks and which one is his favorite that day and why. He loves episodes of “Blue Planet” and reading Bob Shea’s “I’m a Shark!” and examining the shark dissection chart I have framed in our bathroom.

He wants nothing more than to share in this passion with me.

And that’s heady stuff. I feel the power and responsibility of that every day. I have so much influence on him; more than any media, or peer, or even teacher could ever hope to have. I try to take that seriously. For a very brief window of his life, I am all-knowing and wise. If I teach him that sharks are beautiful and mysterious, to be respected and protected instead of feared, he will believe me.

So we take trips to the aquarium, and get down on our knees to peer into tidal pools, and get our sleeves very wet in either scenario. I am savoring this shared interest of ours, and storing it in my memory for when he’s fifteen and I’m so annoying he can’t even stand it.

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Now I don’t want to dictate my child’s interests anymore than I want anyone else to try and dictate my own. There will be no crazed ichthyology-themed stage parenting in our house. If my enthusiasm for sharks becomes cringe-inducing for him at some point (as most things beloved of parents are for their children) well, then I’ll take it down a notch when his friends come over.

Unless he’s rude about it. Then I’m totally trotting out the baby photos where he’s wearing nothing but a shark hat and a smile.

He doesn’t have to don scuba gear and plan for Woods Hole for me to be proud of him. I can’t wait to see what will excite him as he ages. What will light him up, and put that sparkle in his eye. I don’t care what gets his motor running, as long as it runs—loud and strong and takes him somewhere fantastic.

But what I do want, desperately and without agenda, is to instill in him a sense of awe at this amazing planet, to encourage and prolong that sense of wonder at the world that is such an essential part of childhood. A wonder that I still feel at age thirty one, whenever I stand before a salty body of water.

I want him to look out at the sea and the fin in the water and marvel at its majesty.

I want there to be fins left to marvel at.

And I want to marvel with him.

10 Ways to Stay Safe Around Great White Sharks

Great White Shark Shark Safety Tips

A white shark checks out a kayaker – taken a year ago at Nauset Beach.

Summer is in full swing on the Cape now, which means that both swimmers and white sharks are sharing the same waters. While the sharks have no plans to hunt the swimmers en masse like in a corny Sci-Fi movie, they aren’t harmless creatures either. All sharks are wild animals, and when you swim in the ocean, you’re a guest in their home, which is really a sort of wilderness.

Just as you wouldn’t wander into a desert or remote mountain chain without taking precautions for wild animals, you should be aware of your safety when swimming in the white shark’s habitat.

1. Don’t Swim When The Water Isn’t Visible.

This includes swimming at night, during dawn and dusk, and when the water is unusually murky. White sharks largely rely on their sight to distinguish between tasty prey (seals) and not-tasty prey (humans), and if they are uncertain, they may give a test bite to figure out what sort of creature you are.

2. Don’t Swim Where There Are Seals, Or Gatherings of Bait Fish.

Seals are white sharks’ preferred food, so there’s a good chance there’s also a white shark in the water observing them from a distance. Even though humans aren’t on the shark’s menu, it’s not worth the risk.

3. Don’t Swim If Sharks Have Been Spotted In The Area.

This seems like a no-brainer, but people often take silly chances if they think “it’s not going to be me.” Heed the warnings of any signs that have been posted.

4. Don’t Swim Alone.

A solitary individual of any species can’t be defended by other members of its group, and a white shark may seek it out as prey.

5. Stay Close To Shore.

The further out you swim in the water, the further away you get from other swimmers (see #4) and the further away you are from help.

6. Don’t Wear Shiny Jewelry In The Water.

The sunlight reflecting off the jewelry makes an interesting pattern that resembles a darting fish or seal, and can attract sharks.

7. Don’t Swim With An Open Wound.

Sharks’ sensitivity to blood is well-known, and any type of blood can pique their interest.

8. When Leaving The Area Where A Shark Has Been Spotted, Don’t Splash Around.

Splashing is a signal of distress, and can draw a shark’s attention to you.

9. Don’t Spearfish In Areas Frequented By White Sharks.

The amount of blood spearfishing generates can put you at great danger. If a white shark approaches you while spearfishing, drop your catch and leave immediately!

But what happens if you encounter a white shark in the water?

10. Don’t Panic!

A wild hearbeat and erratic movements can increase a white shark’s curiosity – see #8. The white shark may leave when its curiosity about you has been satisfied, so your calm reactions will demonstrate that you are neither threat or prey. Maintain eye contact with the shark if you can, or at least don’t turn your back on it – white sharks are ambush predators, so don’t give it an opportunity to attack by appearing distracted. If you can create any sort of barrier between you and the shark (with a surfboard, for instance), use it.

When you are able leave the water, do so calmly, quickly, and with as little splashing as possible.

Bonus Tip: Don’t Seek Out White Sharks!

Look, sharks are cool, and it’s obvious that they aren’t the mindless killers we once thought they were. But they are wild animals, and can easily become dangerous animals, especially if they are provoked by an encounter with a human. The diving professionals who swim with great whites outside of a cage are doing so at great risk to their lives, and their actions are controversial. You can show your love for great whites by helping out groups like the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, not by disturbing white sharks in their own home!

Sources:

Shark Safety Tips – City of Cape Town

WikiHow – How to Prevent a Shark Attack

Stephen P. Leatherman, “Dr. Beach’s Survival Guide”

Are Great White Sharks Endangered?

Trophy hunting for great whites may make them endangered

Trophy hunting is one of several reasons why white sharks may be listed as endangered.

No – great white sharks are not listed as Endangered, but they are currently listed as a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Reasons for this include their relative scarcity compared to other sharks, their slow reproduction speed, and the high demand for shark related products.

However, with new population studies publishing results, it wouldn’t be surprising if white sharks are listed as endangered in the near future.

In 2012, Oceana, Shark Stewards, and the Center for Biological Diversity all filed petitions to list white sharks as endangered. This prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct a census of the white sharks on the California coast.

Identifying individual sharks by their dorsal fins, they estimated that only 219 white sharks (both adult and juvenile) were living off Central California, with about double that amount living along the Pacific coastline in the United States.

Of course, these numbers are controversial – the study assumed that the California population of white sharks was closed (i.e. no sharks left or joined the population during the time period of the study). Another census suggests that the actual population may be more around 2000.

The more important question, says research scientist Sal Jorgensen of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, should be “is the number of white sharks rising or falling?”

Another study, based out of the white shark hot spot of Gansbaai, South Africa, published its results a few days ago. Using 1683 images of dorsal fins collected over 4000 hours of research by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, the study identified 532 unique individuals.

The study then used statistical methods to estimate the overall numbers of the white shark “super-population” living off the African coastline, thought to migrate as far as Australia. Their results: even the “super” population contained only 908 individuals, which was half of what researchers were expecting.

In their conclusion, the researchers suggested that even though white sharks have been protected in South Africa since 1991, the population hasn’t recovered enough to sustain growth. This will certainly generate followup studies and rebuttals, so it will be interesting to see how many studies end up with this same conclusion.

Either way, tagging white sharks off Cape Cod, supported by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, helps researchers understand the local population, which in turn helps paint a clearer picture of the white shark population overall.

Sources:

Phys.org – Are Great White Sharks Endangered? 

IUCN Red List – Carcharodon carcharias 

IOL Scitech – It’s a Great White Shock

What “Jaws” Gets Right About White Sharks on Cape Cod (And What It Gets Wrong)

Jaws poster

As the great whites return to Cape Cod just in time for tourist season, there are inevitable comparisons to the most famous of all shark stories: Jaws. Not only does Jaws take place in a Massachusetts setting (Martha’s Vineyard stood in for the fictional Amity in the movie), it portrays an ocean lover’s worst nightmare: unprovoked white shark attacks on swimmers, rafts, boats, and even the occupants onboard boats!

But for many years, Jaws has been a greater nightmare for white sharks. Due to the widespread popularity of the movie, the public came to know white sharks as mindless maneaters, which has made generating support for conservation difficult: who would want to protect a mankiller? Trophy hunting white sharks also became a fad after the movie, which further hurt white shark populations vulnerable to overfishing.

Luckily, we understand a great deal more about white sharks than we did in the mid-1970s, and we know that their importance to their ecosystem is far greater than the “swimming noses” image of the movie. And despite its wild inaccuracies, “Jaws” has helped thousands of viewers become fascinated with white sharks, and led to much of the research that we can now use to disprove it.

Let’s break out the facts about white sharks in Jaws from the myths:

Things Jaws Got Right:

  • White sharks visit the coastline of Massachusetts in the summer.

However, the sharks come to feed on the rebounding seal population, not on sunscreened tourists.

This does not mean that it isn’t safe to go swimming in the ocean. It does mean that swimmers should stay clear of areas where white sharks have been spotted.

  • White sharks breach the surface of the water to interact with other animals.

The famous “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene is 100 percent plausible: white sharks are the only species of shark known to regularly look above the surface of the water (known as “spy-hopping”.)

  • 25-foot long white sharks could exist (but there are no verified measurements of one that long).

The longest white shark verifiably measured was a 20-foot long female, caught in 1988 off Prince Edward Island. The longest unverifable white shark on record was a 37-foot shark caught off New Brunswick, Canada in the 1930s.

  • White sharks are ambush predators – they attack without being seen.

However, the details of Chrissie’s attack in Jaws seem unlikely. When hunting, white sharks tend to make a traumatic blow to an animal, and then follow up with feeding once the animal has weakened. Chasing prey at a slow speed until eventually consuming her (after a rendezvous with a buoy) is a bit of a stretch, but it makes for good moviegoing.

Yawn

Things Jaws Got Wrong:

  • “Rogue shark” theory is considered to be a myth.

The concept that multiple attacks in a single time frame and area are caused by a single shark is now considered a poor explanation for shark attacks, given how rare and widely dispersed attacks are. If the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916 (which inspired Jaws) were caused by a single individual, that would be an exception, and not a typical pattern. Sorry, Hooper.

  • White sharks do not chew their prey.

This is one of two ways that Capt. Quint’s dramatic demise was incorrect. White sharks rip off chunks of their prey with their teeth, and swallow the chunks whole.

  • White sharks do not have black eyes.

Though it made for a classic monologue, white sharks do not have the lifeless black eyes of a doll. Their irises are blue, though this can be difficult to see at a bad angle.

  • White sharks did not attack the living survivors of the USS Indianapolis.

Sailors who died after the ship was sunk were most likely scavenged by oceanic white tip sharks, not great whites.

  • White sharks do not attack boats as prey.

White sharks have been known to interact with boats aggressively, but their behavior (such as bumping the boat) is more consistent with scavenging than attacking – they’re checking to see if the boat is a whale carcass.  Also, white sharks are not known to target the occupants of boats, so Alex Kintner, Ben Gardner, Quint, and the anonymous rowboater should have nothing to worry about.

  • White sharks are not unintelligent.

While “eat, swim, and make baby sharks” are high on their agenda, white sharks are also curious, investigative animals with a social structure we’re only beginning to understand.

And the biggest inaccuracy of all…

  • White sharks do not tend to consume humans.

In the vast majority of white shark attacks, the shark releases the human when it realizes that it  is not a fatty marine mammal. Given the size difference between white sharks and humans, these mistakes can still be fatal. Only a few percent of all attacks have involved a white shark actually eating a person, because humans are a terrible menu item for white sharks – our bony bodies aren’t good for their slow digestive systems.

So if you plan to go swimming on the Cape this summer, just use a little common sense and stay clear of areas where white sharks have been spotted. The white sharks will (more likely than not) mind their own business, and you won’t even need a bigger boat.

References:

Florida Museum of Natural History – White Shark Biological Profile

Live Science – The Truth About Great White Sharks, 30 Years After ‘Jaws’

GeekExchange – Human Infested Waters

The Dorsal Fin – Rogue Shark Theory

RTSea Blog – Great White Sharks and Boats

Size and Age of the White Pointer Shark

Save Our Seas – Why Do White Sharks Bite People?