It’s the 1975 summer blockbuster, Jaws, and Robert Shaw’s character slides terrified down the planks of his boat towards the awaiting teeth of a monster great white. There’s a sickening crunch like biting into a Dorito, plenty of blood, and enough of a graphic visual to terrorize children and now ocean-fearing adults for years to come.
This has been the undeserving cultural stigma of not just the great white, but of anything that roams the waters with a fin for decades. Yes, sharks attack folks, but rarely and only a few species. Well, it’s time to discuss the stereotype. Think of all the types of sharks that exist like a school bus full of unruly children. You’ve got the quiet bookworms, the bullies, the kids who won’t stop yelling. The ocean is a big blue school bus, and we’re gonna find out right now what different shark species are all about—whether they’re a shark that minds their own business and reads a book, or the sharks that get assigned the front seat because they won’t stop biting their neighbor.
Disclaimer: Regardless of species, it’s probably good if you don’t attempt cuddling with a shark.
The Great White Shark: The Shark Most Likely to Bite You Playfully
Starting with the great white isn’t a good way to dispel the notion that all sharks are killers because, well, the great white is a real killer. But the motives for an attack are often interpreted with a misguided sense that this creature wants to suck your blood and grind your bones. The great white is known to be an investigatory creature, intelligent enough to communicate with its peers to ambush prey, and will practice a “bite and release” method. They don’t know what you are or if you taste good. They will often surge forth for an investigatory bite before making a yucky face like an infant being spoon-fed and releasing the creature (okay, maybe they don’t make the yucky face). According to a Smithsonian investigation into the International Shark Attack File, two-thirds of the time a Great White will leave the area after a first chomp.
So, why are they so feared? Well, the International Shark Attack File collects shark attack info each year and says that between 2015-2019, there was an average of eighty shark attacks per year. Despite the rarity, they happen, and they get a lot of attention. The annual global average of unprovoked shark fatalities is four per year. The U.S. and Australia are the two most likely locations to get bitten, and Florida carries the title for the best state to go if you want to get bitten—they had 28% of all unprovoked shark bites worldwide in 2020. Besides shark attacks, the physical anatomy of a great white is fearsome. They grow an average of 15 feet in length and weigh as much as two or three Honda Civics stacked on top of each other. One specimen caught off Malta in the Mediterranean in 1987 was estimated at 21 feet and 5,000 pounds.
Should great whites ever decide to put on a PR campaign to rebrand their image, they could easily take the approach of the “curious wanderer”. Great whites are highly migratory animals, constantly moving in search of prey. According to the Smithsonian Institute, a shark named Nicole was tagged in 2003 off the coast of South Africa and three months later it was hanging out in the waters off Western Australia, 6,800 miles away.
The Whale Shark: The Shark Most Likely to Let You Ride Them Sharkback Style
You thought riding a horse was cool? Nah. There’s nothing like putting on swim trunks and cowboy boots and giddy-upping on the largest known living fish in existence. It’s such an issue in Florida that it’s been made illegal under an animal protection act and carries up to a 60-day jail sentence. Your sharkback ride upon a creature that is up to 40 feet long and 20 tons heavy will not be without consequences.
Well, you say, in the previous blurb you described a shark that investigates things by biting them. How is any shark just gonna let me ride it without losing a limb? This is how vastly different whale sharks are from their aggressively carnivorous brethren:
They’re known as “gentle giants” of the ocean. They’re pescatarians and filter feeders, meaning they eat by opening their great yawning mouths and inhaling plankton and fish and shrimp. They’re basically a sea vacuum in a 30-foot body. When a mature whale shark is around 25, they give live birth to up to 300 live young called pups. Shark children are called pups! It’s not a contest for most adorable traits, whale shark—calm down.
Besides their docile nature, whale sharks are gorgeous. Look at a picture and they glow with an aquatic iridescence, mottled with speckled shimmering spots and gliding peacefully through the Indian and Pacific oceans. They honestly look like a creature that should’ve been in the movie Avatar.
The sad thing about this luscious mammoth of the deep is that they are now considered endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The shark species that is estimated to be 70 million years old has had its numbers cut in half over the last 75 years due to being killed by ship’s propellers or accidentally caught by tuna fishermen. When they do realize their full life expectancy, whale sharks can live between 100 and 150 years.
The Tiger Shark: Most Likely Species to be a Zombie Shark
You may ask, could this shark really be a sea zombie, or is this simply a shameless plug for an awesome movie called Zombie Shark?... How about both?
Okay, tiger shark, prove it to me. Prove your worth as a zombie. Well, they have the widest diet spectrum among any of the shark species listed here. They will gorge on turtles, sea mammals, birds, stingrays, human garbage, fishing tackle, and yes, they fulfill the zombie requirement of cannibalism—they are known to eat dead animals or attack fellow smaller sharks. Because of their insatiable hunger for chomping anything that exists, they are one of the top three species of sharks known to sample human flesh (along with the bull shark and great white).
Tiger sharks don’t make good zombie sharks due to any special fanged tiger teeth—they’re known for the vertical bars painted on the side of their bodies similar to tiger stripes. They’ll grow 8 to 14 feet and weigh up to one ton, or about one Honda Civic. Adult tiger sharks will often live off coasts and near coral reefs, while juveniles will live in bays and estuaries to avoid being eaten by their aunts and uncles. Like the whale shark (and zombies), tiger sharks are sparsely populated in the wild. Tiger sharks are now considered critically endangered, due to being hunted for their fins and liver oil and being rudely killed off by commercial fisheries.
Think of a zombie movie where some local idiot is hiding in the hardware store and kicks over a loose paint bucket. The zombie cocks its head and twitches a bit and sniffs the air. The tiger shark is more sensitive to sensory stimuli than your average dumb movie zombie. They can detect electricity underwater using a neural network of electric receptors called the Ampullae of Lorenzini and locate the tiny emittance of bioelectricity released by animals. That means when you go in the water, tiger sharks can literally feel your energy.
Great Hammerhead Shark: Most Likely Shark to win Goofiest Kid in Class Award
Do I really have to say it out loud? Just look at the hammerhead’s head. Try having a staring contest with that thing. You can’t. You’ll blink and the great hammerhead will stare agape at you with eyes that are up to 36 inches apart.
Fortunately for the great hammerhead, it’s an apex predator and good luck to any bully who tries to make fun of them in gym class. The eccentric hammerhead grows up to 20 feet and adds to its unique persona by being known primarily as a loner. They migrate long distances solitarily, sometimes up to 750 miles. They don’t live as long as say, the whale shark, but mature at 5 to 9 years and can realize a life expectancy of around 44 years.
What evolutionary purpose does it serve, this oblong, odd-shaped head that stares at you like a creepy crayfish? The head helps the shark detect prey in the sand. They sway it back and forth, and the electrical receptors in their head seek out creatures hiding in the sand, like stingrays, crustaceans, and octopuses. Like the whale shark, the great hammerhead is threatened by fisheries and those who catch the hammerhead to sell its fins for shark fin soup. The “shark with the funny head” is now critically endangered and categorized on the IUCN’s endangered Red List.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark: Most Likely to Eat You When Your Boat Sinks
I’m really not helping the cause that most sharks are nonviolent here, but the oceanic whitetip is just too interesting to ignore. Not only are they mysterious and dangerous, but they are known to mirror behavior seen in dogs. They’re basically like the chihuahua living next door, except for their brute killing force and penchant for eating in feeding frenzies. Here’s why observers compare them with dogs:
Oceanic whitetips are immensely curious. They’ve been known to approach boats, take a peek with the same mannerisms as an inquisitive canine, and then leave. They’ll also follow the wake of ships, swimming leisurely behind the same way a golden retriever would jog along after its master.
The whitetip exists only in tropical and subtropical waters, and Jacques Cousteau once called it “the most dangerous of all sharks”. They are aggressive predators and will swarm prey in terrifying packs. So, it’s not hard to find horror legends about whitetip attacks, such as the assault on the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was a ship that was torpedoed in the Philippines in World War II. Different accounts estimate that between 150 and 800 men were attacked and eaten as survivors treaded open water waiting for rescue.
The whitetip isn’t the largest shark at around 12 feet and 370 pounds, but possibly the most opportunistic and aggressive. Besides possessing a fine palette for shipwreck victims, they’ll attack fish that to catch, normally require a man harnessed into a seat. Think of those 200-pound sportfish marlin and tuna that are built like trucks and found off the coasts—oceanic whitetips eat those.
The Zebra Shark: Most Likely to Take You Out for Crab Legs on a First Date
Look at the zebra shark and one may see a living painting, flitting in and out of rock outcrops and crevices with swift thrusts, fluid and darting sharply in a poetic ambush. They’re an off-white base color with mottled black spots as adults, born with yellow stripes (hence the zebra), and often mistaken as a leopard shark. It’s also known as a subspecies of a carpet shark, synonymously referred to as a “wobbegong” shark. The zebra shark is all over the seafloor both phonetically and physically. That’s why if you ever date a zebra shark, you’re likely to go out to a raw bar of fresh crab, and a nice after-dinner ambush of small invertebrates.
Zebra sharks are nocturnal foragers and have never been noted in any instances of attack on humans. They have barbel whiskers, similar to catfish, and their small mouths are perfect for inhaling sandy prey like a Shopvac in a wet basement. Adult zebra sharks might grow to an impressive 12 feet, but these floor-dwellers are non-aggressive. They’re the opposite of the stereotyped terror that stalks a floating swimmer, and whether you call them a wobbegong or a big ocean catfish, they’re unlikely to try to gulp human toes.
Conclusion: Not all Sharks are Scary—Maybe Still Don’t Cuddle Them
Six species. Three man-eaters. Three non-aggressive for humans. Detailed above were just half a dozen species, all with unique individual traits, and yet that’s just a sample. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, there are over 1,000 species of sharks and rays dating back 400 million years.
They deserve respect for their intelligence, prowess, and ancient history, and many of the most glorious species are endangered due to overfishing. Whatever one’s current perception of the toothy predators, a person can ask themselves two questions next time they’re floating exposed atop a dark ocean.
The pessimist thinks, what are my chances of being eaten today? The fearless adventurer wonders, how close am I right now to one of the most fascinating creatures of the deep?