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Data Storytelling: Is Jaws Misunderstood?

01/30/2018 by Jaime D’Agord Data Communication

When it comes to persuading an audience, are statistics or stories most impactful? In her post, Trying to Tell a Persuasive Data Story, Tricia Aanderud talks about building empathy to move people to action and humanizing data to make an emotional impact. Analyzing shark data led me to fascinating findings. To create this persuasive data story I decided to combine my results with Tricia’s insights. In this 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.

Keep reading to see if I can persuade you with my conclusions in this data story.

Are Sharks Really the Villain?

Let’s face it, Hollywood has given sharks a bad rap, portraying them as villains and creating a culture that fears the fin through the 1977 movie Jaws. OCEARCH, a non-profit organization that studies great white sharks has 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, but never 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 closest enough to the surface to ping the satellite. There are two paths – orange and gold.  More about that in a second.

(Photo: Courtesy of OCEARCH)

In fact, her 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 was pinged swimming off North Carolina with her friend Katherine. (This is where the gold and orange paths come in! One is Mary Lee and other is Katherine.)  Mary Lee was later seen up north near Cape Cod with other sharks of similar species presumably hunting seals. You may be surprised to know that our interest in them outweighs their interest in us.

(Photo: Courtesy of OCEARCH)

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 being attacked by a shark are very slim. There are approximately 110 shark attacks worldwide each year and only a few are fatal. In fact, 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 (18 Things More Likely to Kill You Than Sharks).

Reviewing Shark Incidents

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

Note: Data from Jan 2008-July 2017

Sharks Prefer Fish to Humans

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 sightings.

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?

713 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.

Avoiding 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 are playing where they live. There are things you can do to avoid a potential shark attack:

  • Avoid wearing shiny jewelry or swimwear as these items can be misconstrued for fish scales
  • Don’t go in the water if you are bleeding
  • Stay in groups. Sharks are more likely to attack a person singularly
  • Avoid swimming at night – you can’t see them, but they can certainly see you

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 June 2017 and researchers believe the battery on her tracking device has run its course. They believe, now she is at least 20 feet weighing over 4000 pounds. If OCEARCH can’t find her, you probably won’t either – so #dontfearthefin!

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.


Learn to Think Like a Data Storyteller

Data storytelling is one of the most sought after skills by hiring managers. It’s because data storyteller understand how to present data and narratives to move audiences to action.

Click here for more details.