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Shark Tales: Does Data Disprove Jaws?

Data Communication

Jaime D’Agord



When it comes to persuading an audience, are statistics or data stories most impactful?

Building empathy to move people to action and humanizing data to make an emotional impact creates the best data stories. Analyzing shark data led me to fascinating findings, so I decided to combine my results with Tricia’s insights to create this persuasive data story.

In my data story, Mary Lee, a great white shark with over 100,000 twitter followers, is the lead character. I used her to bring the human aspect to the data. Let’s see if I can persuade you with my conclusions in this example data story.

In this virtual event, you can watch as I walk through my SAS Visual Analytics data story: Data Storytelling: You Can Stop Being Afraid of Sharks

Data Story: Are Sharks Really the Villains?

Let’s face it, Hollywood has given sharks a bad rap, portraying them as monsters and creating a culture that fears the fin through the 1977 movie Jaws. One organization that does not see sharks as the villain is OCEARCH. They are a non-profit organization that studies great white sharks. They have generated outstanding amounts of data regarding movement, biology, and shark health that not only allows researchers to generate information that was previously unattainable but enhances public safety practices.

One of OCEARCH’s tagged sharks, @MaryLeeShark, a 50-year-old great white shark, was seen foraging much of the Atlantic over the years. She’s never been tracked too close to the coast or where people would usually be about swimming. The following figure shows her path around the Atlantic. Each dot represents when she was close enough to the surface to ping the satellite. There are two paths – orange and gold. The gold path represents Mary Lee and the other represents shark Katherine, another one of OCEARCH’s tagged sharks.

Ocearch data storytelling example

Photo Credit: Ocearch Site

Mary Lee’s only known human interaction was with the OCEARCH team when she was tagged (see below). Like humans, sharks like to socialize – not with humans but with other sharks. Back in 2015, Mary Lee and Katherine were pinged swimming off North Carolina at various times. (see above) Mary Lee was later seen up north near Cape Cod with other sharks of similar species. It’s presumed that they were hunting seals.

You may be surprised to know that our interest in them outweighs their interest in us.

Ocearch tagging Mary Lee Shark - Example Data Storytelling

Photo Credit: OCEARCH

The odds of getting attacked and killed by a shark are so slim that you are more likely to die from heart disease, the flu, biking or even lightning. So, if you get anxious while swimming in the ocean or have a fear of being attacked by a shark, I have good news for you – your chances of a shark encounter are very slim. There are approximately 110 shark attacks worldwide each year and only a few are fatal.

Reviewing Shark Incidents: Sharks Prefer Fish to Humans

Over the past 10 years, there have been 1,174 shark attacks worldwide. Roughly 90% were not fatal

While shark attacks have slightly increased over the years, fatality rates have declined. Researchers (like OCEARCH) believe this could be due to better responses to beach safety practices or increased public awareness – such as avoiding areas where there have been shark sighting.


worldwide shark incidents data storytelling examplesLine Chart from SAS Visual Analytics

Total shark incidents worldwide Source: Line Chart from SAS Visual Analytics

While shark attacks have slightly increased over the years, fatality rates have declined. Researchers (like OCEARCH) believe this could be due to better responses to beach safety practices or increased public awareness – such as avoiding areas where there have been shark sighting.


data story example SAS Viya SAS Visual Analytics

Total shark fatalities worldwide Source: Line Chart from SAS Visual Analytics

The outcome of an attack largely depends on the size of the shark. A large shark is more prone to fatally hurting a victim as their bite imposes a significant amount of pressure.

Which Sharks are More Curious?

Seven hundred and thirteen of the reported shark attack cases were conveyed without a species and were filtered out of the graph below. These cases are perhaps the result of a person’s inability to identify species in the heat of the moment. In some cases, people aren’t familiar with shark species, so they can only provide a description of what was seen.

The white shark, also commonly referred to as the great white shark, bull and tiger sharks rank highest for attacks on humans. Generally, sharks do not eat humans. Great whites typically feed on marine animals. Attacks and fatalities are highly unusual and typically occur when sharks are confused or curious.

shark type sas visual analytics sas viya

Incidents by shark type Source: SAS Visual Analytics on SAS Viya

How to Avoid Shark Encounters

While the risks are extremely low for potential shark attacks, spending any amount of time in the ocean makes your risk slightly higher as you happen to be playing where they live, plain and simple. There are things you can do to avoid a potential shark attack:

• Avoid wearing shiny jewelry

• Avoid waters being fished or chummed

• Don’t go in the water if you are bleeding

• Don’t swim alone

What We Know

Jaws was a fictional great white shark, but @MaryLeeShark is real. She became internet famous after being tagged by OCEARCH in September 2012. She has since gone missing. Her last ping was in June 2017. Scientists and researchers believe the battery on her tracking device has run its course. They believe she is now she is at least 20 feet and likely weighs over 4000 pounds.

There are few animals as terrifying to humans as sharks. Some people believe just getting near the ocean can result in a shark-related death – however, luckily for us, the data doesn’t support that fear.

If OCEARCH can’t find her, you probably won’t either – so #dontfearthefin!

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