A fishy question

By Isaac Azuelos

A woman goes swimming on a rough day just off the coast of California, in water about 10 feet deep. She is attacked by a shark, which bites her leg. Acting quickly, she stabs the shark in the head with the knife she is carrying. The shark dies, but her leg is caught in the shark and she sinks and dies too.

Shark Attack

Shark attacks are often fatal. Sure, over the last 400 years or so only about one person has been killed by a shark each year, but fatal shark attacks are on the rise. One person a year may seem like a dull, unimpressive statistic, but the low number is only due to the limited contact between our ever-warring species. If shark attacks were as common as dog attacks, they would be responsible for nearly one million deaths a year in the United States alone (dog attacks killed about 26 people a year in the last decade in the U.S., despite having attacked an estimated 4.7 million). These staggering numbers suggest that, given the opportunity, sharks would produce similarly high numbers. This is proof that the shark had intent to kill our esteemed swimmer. For what other reason would a shark attack? Our swimmer was attacked with intent to kill, then died as a direct result of that attack; the shark is clearly responsible for her death.

Sharks can kill people; they caused an average of five people a year between 2000 and 2007 to die, which is significantly higher than in the past as we encroach more on their territory. Our victim was clearly a competent swimmer, as she found herself in the ocean and alive prior to the shark attack. Seeing as she is dead and experienced a possibly fatal shark attack shortly before her death, it follows that the shark attack is likely the cause of her death. It could be argued that she drowned, as it was the shark’s carcass attached to the woman’s leg that dragged her down to her eventual death, but what then would constitute a death by shark attack?

Consider guns in place of our shark. You wouldn’t say that a man who was shot is killed by the bullet, you blame the shooter. The autopsy might say our gunshot victim died due to some interrupted necessary biological function, yet it was already established that he was shot. These necessary abstractions allow us to function as a society and blaming the bullet is the same as blaming drowning for the death of our swimmer. If we deny that these abstractions are sometimes necessary, the foundations of our legal system falls apart. Also, this is just common sense.

If the shark were conscious and alive, it would be held accountable for the death of our swimmer. Our swimmer’s actions after the attack could not be culpable for her death any more than any other victim’s attempt at self defence would be. While attacks are rare, sharks don’t hesitate to try and kill their victims. In attacks where the shark flees after biting, it is only because the shark fears losing upon realizing the size of its would-be pray. The fact remains: a woman died as the direct result of the actions of an aggressive shark.

What the mechanism of her death was is not that important, it is the cause which should be held accountable. Even if it is determined that our swimmer died of drowning, responsibility for her death still lies with the shark. You could not, in other comparable circumstances, remove blame from that which lead to the death of a victim. Our swimmer would not be dead if the shark had not attacked and therefore the shark is the cause of her death.


Although it may seem that the victim of this situation died because of a shark attack, careful analysis shows that it wasn’t her actual cause of death. As the individual had no considerable wound resulting in major blood loss or any other prevailing issues that would result in death, the water entering the individual’s lungs, suffocating her, was what killed her.

The World Health Organization defines drowning as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” When the individual in question sank with the shark, she was submerged in liquid and would have experienced said respiratory impairment. Yes, the shark attack was a precipitating event to the individual’s death, but if one was to focus solely on the precipitates of an event to explain its occurrence and subsequent result, it would result in a continual regression and the true cause of death would never be settled upon. The individual’s choice to go swimming that day, to carry a knife, even to swim in that specific spot at that specific time would have all contributed to her unfortunate death. Indeed, all of these are necessary prerequisites to her particular fate. However, that does not change what she died from– drowning.

U.S. reports show that in 2002, over 400,000 people died from drowning worldwide. Further, it is the third leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. Reports on shark attacks from the International Shark Attack File state that fewer than 100 shark attacks occur annually, and of those, very few result in death. It is actually more common to die from a snake bite (60,000 deaths a year) than a shark attack. This woman’s unfortunate end falls squarely in line with what these statistics suggest.

The same applies for the concept of the woman stabbing the shark as her true cause of death. It was simply another precipitate to her actual death, which would not be possible to properly argue. Such debates about the precipitates to this incident could even reach as far back as the victim’s birth, which could absurdly be argued was the cause of death. These absurd arguments could be stretched so far as to include what the woman had for breakfast that day and how long it took her to eat it. Even the Big Bang itself could be deemed directly responsible for her death.

Drowning is what killed the woman, proven simply by how fast a person can drown. A human usually loses consciousness in two to three minutes and then dies within five to 10 minutes in a drowning incident. In a typical shark attack, which are named hit and run attacks, the shark will take a single bite, confused about whether the victim is prey or not, and then swim away, leaving the victim alive.

Again, this shows that arguing precipitates will not answer the problem suggested. The final cause of death is not attributed to a precipitate, it is attributed to what stopped the victim from living.

So the shark should not be blamed for its attack on the victim or for her death. The stabbing of the shark should also not be attributed as her actual cause of death. The woman being asphyxiated by water is what truly killed her.


Sharks are said to be the most fearsome creatures that inhabit the ocean. While that is the popular perception, it is more accurate to conclude that humans are far more dangerous, especially in regards to harming themselves in the water. When discussing the situation and placing the blame on the shark for the death of the person swimming in shallow water, it is preposterous to conclude that the victim was killed by any means other than her own hand. If left alone, it is more than likely the shark would have vacated the scene immediately after the initial contact with the human. The action of stabbing the shark, and not the manoeuvres of the shark, played a larger part in the fatality.

Without the actions undertaken by the woman, it is likely the shark would have left the victim alive. The most frequent type of shark attacks are hit and runs. This type of attack is most common in shallow water where there are large groups of people and frothy, wavy water. It involves the shark biting the person and then quickly releasing and swimming away. The shark simply attacks because in the confusion of the shallow waves, the human is mistaken for prey or the shark feels threatened. This type of attack is non-fatal and usually the person sustains little damage. The majority of shark bites are not serious, as the teeth rarely go deep into the skin or even break the surface. When the shark realizes the human is too big, it will swim away. There are other attacks that place the blame on the shark, but those were not exhibited in this instance.

For the shark to be responsible for the death of the human it would involve another type of attack, characteristics of which are not displayed in the above situation. Fatal shark attacks are lumped into two categories referred to as bump-and-bite attacks and sneak attacks. A bump-and-bite attack should be dismissed from the above situation because this form of attack is seen in deeper water, not the shallow water that the victim was swimming in. It is also evident that in both these types of attacks, the sharks are not threatened as in the hit and run, but see the human as food and continue to pursue the victim until it succumbs. While the classifications of the type of shark attacks propose that the shark is not the cause of death, statistics play a role in determining the human element in the situation was to blame.

Statistics from the last 429 years show that the majority of shark attacks are non-fatal. According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been 2,199 confirmed shark attacks around the world. Only 471, or 21 per cent, of the attacks have been fatal. When humans are attacked by sharks in a hit and run, it is better they do nothing, as 80 per cent of the time the shark will make an initial strike, realize its mistake and swim off. If the swimmer in the situation had simply not stabbed the shark, statistics tell us that she would more than likely be alive. When you are attacked near shore, it is best to swim calmly towards shore so as to escape the shark. While it is advisable to defend yourself, in shallow water, getting out of the water is the best course of action.

The swimmer is to blame for her death in the shark attack mentioned in the scenario. She was involved in an attack that commonly results in non-fatal outcomes. Sharks are not the great terror of the seas, they are simply defending their territory from invasion by sea-going humans.

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