The scientific system of species classification and description originated by Carl Linneaus (1758)—the same system that identifies humans as Homo sapiens—was the genesis for the label of “man-eater” for the white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. Linneaus’ description of this species included noting that “it strikes” (dorfo plano), has teeth of armor (dentibus ferrates), and was likely responsible for swallowing Jonah (Linneaus 1758, p. 235), whose story had been widely published in the 1679
Lectiones Morales in Prophetam Jonam by Angelo Paciuchelli and Charles de Marimont. Linnaeus’ historic volumes redefined the scientific and social world, and white sharks were singled out for their motivation as a man-eater.
From there, the story of the danger posed by sharks grew. In Thomas Pennant’s 1812 volume British Zoology, a stated characteristic of white sharks was their “greediness after human flesh” (p. 140). In 1845, Samuel Goodrich wrote that the shark is the “dread of mankind in the seas where it is found” (Goodrich 1845, p. 317). “Man-eater” came to virtually define white sharks (Jordan and Gilbert 1880), but the label also was used for other species in other areas. For example, in Hawai’i, the term niuhi meaning “man-eater” was used in native songs, most likely referring to the tiger shark (Titcomb and Pukui 1951, p. 4).
In Europe, colonial experiences shaped understandings of sharks. British big-game hunter Sir Samuel Baker’s expeditions in Asia and Africa led him to conclude that individual tigers, Panthera tigris, can become “man eaters” within a local area (Baker 1890; Blanford 1891). This concept of a predator that has acquired a “taste for human flesh” was projected onto sharks. In 1899, William Bryce wrote in the British Medical Journal about shark bites on three people on the same day in Port Said, Egypt. He noted that “many people have expressed the opinion that it must have been one shark which bit all three boys, and I think this very likely” (Bryce 1899, p. 1534).
Historical accounts at this time in the USA often differed, with scientists arguing that dangerous sharks could only be found in warmer southern waters. A report in the New York Times in 1865 recounted the story of Peter Johnson, a fisherman aboard a schooner in Lubec, Maine, who was bitten by a shark “that must have been of the species known as ‘man-eater’” (NY Times 1865). Yet the report notes that “man eaters” are “common in low latitudes” and “seldom, if ever attack mankind” (NY Times 1865). In 1916, interest in shark behavior rose dramatically following a cluster of fatal shark bites in New Jersey. Initially, Frederic Augustus Lucas of the American Museum of Natural History stated that it must not have been a shark because “sharks have no such powerful jaws” (Webster 1962, p. 87). He later concluded that he was wrong, and the shark in question must have been demented or “mad.”
In Australia, ocean swimming during the day was illegal from the late 1830s until 1902, due to concerns about propriety (Neff 2012), and the first reported shark bite was not documented until 1915, at an ocean beach in Sydney (Maxwell 1949). Fatal incidents followed at Sydney beaches, yet responses were limited. New South Wales Fisheries expert David Stead offered a statement on shark behavior in 1929, noting that “sharks do not patrol beaches on the off-chance of occasionally devouring human prey” (NSW 1929, p. 2). As a result, an Australian government report at the time referred to most cases of fatal shark bites as shark “accidents” (Neff 2012).
However, more shark bites ensued in Australia, and a 1933 study by Sydney surgeon Sir Victor Coppleson attempted to reconcile the competing international theories. Correspondence from the USA urged him to address this disagreement and to warn the public of possible “shark rabies” (Coppleson archives 1964). Coppleson concluded that the “evidence that sharks will attack man is complete” (Coppleson 1933, p. 466). Following publication of his article, the terminology in Australia changed to favor the more dominant shark “attack” language, which portrayed certain sharks as “man killers” (Coppleson 1933). Yet, the question of how to label different types of shark bites would persist, allowing the perception that all shark bites were of the “man-eating attack” variety.
In 1949, Australian author C. Bede Maxwell concluded that a “shark consciousness” was beginning to emerge, and she wrote that “‘accidents’ is the correct word to use in connexion [sic] with shark tragedies” (Maxwell 1949, p. 182). A global awareness of sharks was beginning to take shape with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops across the Pacific in World War II, bringing more sharks and people into contact than any previous time in human history. The US Navy produced a “Shark Sense” brochure to dissuade the concerns of pilots; however, the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945, resulting in 60–80 fatalities by sharks (Sisneros and Nelson 2001), brought the subject of sharks and shark repellents to the forefront of government attention (Caldicott et al. 2001, p. 447).
Prior to the Indianapolis disaster, a chemical shark repellent called “Shark Chaser” had been developed and distributed to US military personnel at sea (Sisneros and Nelson 2001). The realization that this repellent was only partially effective led the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and other groups to focus further on the problem. Decades of ONR-sponsored research followed, resulting in great advances in our knowledge of shark physiology, behavior, and ecology (Gilbert 1963; Hodgson and Mathewson 1978). In 1958, a “Shark Research Panel” comprising Perry Gilbert, Sidney Galler, John Olive, Leonard Schultz, and Stewart Springer was established by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), spurring a new discourse on categorizing human–shark encounters (Gilbert 1963; Caldicott et al. 2001).
That year, a meeting entitled “Conference on the Basic Research Approaches to the Development of Shark Repellents” was held in New Orleans, sponsored by AIBS, Tulane University, ONR, and the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. The conference included 34 scientists from around the world. Shark “attack” classifications were suggested, with four categories outlined in a report by Leonard Schultz (Schultz 1963). These included: “unprovoked shark attacks,” in which sharks “make contact with the victim or gear;” “provoked shark attacks” that involve injuring, catching, or annoying sharks; “boat attacks” that involve contact with boating equipment; and “air and sea disasters” (Schultz 1963). To track trends in human–shark interactions around the world, the Shark Research Panel established the Shark Attack File, later known as the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), currently curated at the University of Florida.
The Schultz (1963) report advanced our thinking about shark attack in several ways. Bites or ramming on boats were separated out from bites on people, reducing the number of perceived “attacks” that occurred each year. The special cases of air and sea disasters were identified as unusual circumstances possibly evoking shark behavior not typical of that seen off ocean beaches. Most importantly, “provoked” responses by sharks that had been antagonized by swimmers, divers, or fishermen were separated from “unprovoked” attack behavior on what was perceived to be an innocent human victim. This provoked vs. unprovoked criterion is still used in today’s ISAF.
During the same post-WWII period, people began using ocean beaches for recreation at an increasing rate, as leisure time and personal and public transportation all rose after the mid-1940s. In the USA, “vacation travel boomed…and beaches on the East, West, and Gulf coasts were particularly popular destinations” (Harper 2007, p. 37). This expansion occurred in Australia and South Africa as well. Davies (1964, p. 141) stated that in South Africa, the “increased usage of the sea is related to such factors as increasing population, improved methods of transport, shorter working hours, and the increase of leisure time.” As a result, the growing popularity of ocean swimming, surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving brought more people into potential contact with sharks every year.