Since Jaws, the combination of summertime and sharks has conjured images of killer fish stalking beaches as puffy-legged vacationers frolic in shallow waters, never suspecting that the animal which has been called the definitive predator has seen them, smelled them and now craves them.
Judging Juliet Eilperin's brand new book — out just in time for beach weather — by its title, you might be brace yourself for tales of man-eaters and blood in the water. But the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks says that in reality, it's the sharks that should be afraid of human predators.
In the book, Eilperin, the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, visits communities around the world where people interact with sharks, sometimes with respect, but far more often with fear or aggression.
"We're the ones who are dangerous," Eilperin tells Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon. "It's not that sharks are without dangers, but if you want to say who poses the greater threat between the two, there's no doubt it's humans."
"Because we crave sharks both for their fin so that we can put it into an Asian delicacy — that's shark fin soup," Eilperin says. "We catch them by accident, and then some people like to go catch them so they can create fiberglass trophies and tell tales to their friends. And as a result, we're killing somewhere between 80 and 100 million sharks a year, where by comparison, sharks kill between 4 and 5 people worldwide."
Humans aren't even particularly appetizing to sharks, Eilperin writes.
"We're not fatty enough. We don't have enough on us. So, in fact, often when a great white attacks someone, they do the 'bite and spit.' They do the bit hoping that we're a seal and they spit us out. You know, what you see in the movie, and this total consumption of humans, is not usually what happens," she says. "It's not to minimize it [when it does happen], but if it's any consolation, we now have a 90 percent chance of surviving a shark strike, so that's a lot better odds than it was at the turn of the last century."
So how did sharks win their reputation as the monsters of the sea? Eilperin says the relationship goes back to a time when humans depended on — and traveled in — the sea more than we do now.
"I think we came to see them as evil during seafaring times," Eilperin says. "I mean, I think there's this primordial fear that we have of them because, frankly, particularly with island cultures, they were more closely tied to the sea, they were going out to sea, and many of them were having interactions with sharks."
Which is to say that sharks have earned at least a bit of their reputation as mysterious and efficient killers.
"I think that they are one of the few creatures that can attack us with no warning," Eilperin says. "To some extent it makes sense. I mean, basically, they are relentless predators. It's why they've been able to survive for hundreds of millions of years. They're incredibly good at what they do; it's just that they're not targeting us. The way that Christopher Neff, a researcher in Australia, puts it is that we're in the way but not on the menu. So I think that's our biggest misconception. But in other ways, sharks can be pretty brutal. Some of them eat each other in utero. They abandon their young. So they're not saints, by any means."
Eilperin says that sharks predate dinosaurs by about 200 million years. And while they display traits that have evolved into characteristics we share, like the muscles that humans use to chew, DNA tests have shown that the animals themselves have barely changed.
"It's one of the reasons why they're pretty ill-equipped to adapt, whether it's intense fishing pressure or ocean acidification," Eilperin says. "There are things happening now that they never had to contend with over the course of hundreds of millions of years."
Of course, humans still present the greatest threat. But Eilperin is convinced that we can co-exist.
"I think there are many ways we could consider ourselves allies. Basically, sharks are essential for maintaining the balance in the ecosystems," she says. "They're one of the top predators, and they really keep mid-level predators in check so that we can have all sorts of species and healthy coral reefs. And for that reason, it's actually more in our interest to keep them around than to get rid of them."
In the course of writing Demon Fish, as Eilperin got to know sharks quite a bit better, her appreciation for them grew.
"I'm not obsessed with them and I don't — 'love' is not the right word for them — but I have both incredible respect for this animal that's managed to survive for so long and I do have a little bit of affection," she says. "I think that they're beautiful creatures, and that's something I didn't really think before getting in the water with them. But now that I've seen them up close and in lots of different contexts, I just think there's nothing else like them.