One of the most frequently asked questions about the Caribbean Sea is: will something eat me? You can almost see the vision playing out behind people's eyes. There they are, meandering along the white sands in their new, trendy beach outfit. Admiring looks follow them, as they enter the water, sunlight gleaming on their tanned, sea soaked skin. The crystalline Caribbean Sea stretches out for miles of turquoise, each wave sparkling like gems. Beautiful, stunning. And then a shark eats them.
That's one way to ruin a lovely daydream. Let's see if we can get it back on track. The truth is that the above scenario is all very feasible and extremely likely to happen, with the exception of the ending. There are sharks around the Yucatán Peninsula, as evidenced by the fact that the word shark itself is Mayan in origin. But the chances of them eating you range from highly unlikely to extremely improbable. You are far more likely to get hit by lightning than attacked by a shark, let alone eaten by one.
Most shark attacks occur because of mistaken identity. Sharks haven't got good eyesight and therefore may mistake you for a tasty snack. However, the oceans around the Yucatán Peninsula are crystal clear. The shark is more likely to be able to see you very clearly and therefore won't bother you. You are more likely to see a shark by the coral reefs, but even then it will be a rare sighting. No-one has ever died of a shark attack in the Yucatán, though someone did get bitten in 1941.
In April 2008, news spread across the internet about a vicious shark attack in Cancún. While it is true that there was a dead man and there was a shark, the reality wasn't quite as the social panic would have it. The whole story is recounted in more detail over on Annet van de Mortel's blog. The short version is that he got drunk and drowned. The shark was nowhere near him at the time.
The trouble is that everyone has watched 'Jaws' and so sharks are now forever categorised as 'very dangerous to humans' in our mind's eye. In reality, out of 360 known species of shark, only a handful are dangerous. The Great White Shark, the Tiger Shark, the Bull Shark and the Oceanic Whitetip Shark are responsible for the majority of fatal attacks on humans worldwide. By majority, we're talking about 5-15 attacks globally each year, often in self-defense. The other 356 species of shark, for various reasons, are simply not interested in you. Even amongst the dangerous ones, it's rare for them to attack; and divers have been able to swim right alongside without becoming dinner.
So which sharks are swimming in the oceans around Mexico? Loads of them. It's where a lot of those species live. However, you're probably mostly interested in the 'baddies'. Let's look at them:
Great White Shark. This is the species made famous in the 'Jaws' film, however it doesn't visit Mexico. The closest it comes is in the northern Gulf of Mexico, bothering those in the American South. How to avoid being eaten by them: come to Mexico.
Tiger Shark. This one does live here! However, the chances of it attacking are ridiculously unlikely. For a start, they've been hunted close to extinction, with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) having it listed as 'nearly threatened'. While the big game hunters are out getting their trophies, the tiger shark consequently not out there in any great numbers. Even should one turn up, the likelihood of it attacking is very low. Nevertheless, it should be treated with respect. How to avoid being eaten by them: look them straight in the eye, so they know they've been seen and so can't ambush you.
Please note the complete lack of any tiger sharks eating the divers in the above video.
Bull Shark. These sharks do live in the Mexican Caribbean. Again they are the targets of big game hunters and are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as 'Near Threatened'. However, they've been responsible for only 17 fatalities worldwide, since records began, none of which were in Mexico. How to avoid being eaten by them: punch them in the snout to avoid close contact.
Oceanic Whitetip. This is the shark of shipwreck legend. It lives well off-shore and descends upon sinking ships for its supper. Though it does live in the Mexican Caribbean, it's nowhere near the beach. It's in the really deep waters right out at sea. You are more likely to encounter it on your plate, as this is the shark that commercial fisheries catch for sharkmeat. As a result, it is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as "vulnerable". How to avoid being eaten by them: punch them in the snout to avoid close contact.
So that's the four biggies taken care of. In the extremely rare situation that you see a predator, then look it in the eye and punch it in the snout, if it gets too close. That's all. But the majority of sharks in the Mexican Caribbean really aren't that interested in you. Your most likely shark sighting will be with a nurse or whale shark, both of whom eat plankton.
Back to the daydream...
... meandering along the white sands in their new, trendy beach outfit. Admiring looks follow them, as they enter the water, sunlight gleaming on their tanned, sea soaked skin. The crystalline Caribbean Sea stretches out for miles of turquoise, each wave sparkling like gems. Beautiful, stunning. So they have a little swim, then get out of the water to lie back on the sun lounger. Their biodegradable sunscreen is reapplied between sips of rum and sangrita; and all the world is great.