Jarratt D. Lark '84

On shark watch
August 1, 2004
Jarratt D. Lark '84

Sharks have always fascinated people, and fictionalized horror stories such as Jaws have fueled America's sensationalized view of these ancient predators as bloodthirsty man-eaters. This depiction of sharks is dramatically overblown, says Jarratt Lark. Still, he says, the threat of shark attacks, though relatively rare, is quite real.

Lark should know. He is a member of the South Carolina Shark Attack Task Force. Since 1992, he has also been an emergency-room physician at a medical center that serves Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where three to five attacks occur every year. But he does not just help treat patients or advise surgeons on a course of treatment. He is also responsible for reporting the case details of any attack to the International Shark Attack File--an organization that compiles data on attacks around the world in an effort to uncover patterns or common traits that may provoke sharks to attack.

Lark focused on marine biology at Duke. He graduated summa cum laude, with distinction, from the biology department, and made Phi Beta Kappa. Under his mentor, Paul Auerbach, a leader in the emerging field of environmental medicine, Lark chose to become a physician specializing in a field that would allow him to have a "satisfying blend" of marine biology and medicine. After Duke, he went to medical school at Vanderbilt University.

Lark notes that most shark attacks "are cases of mistaken identity," in which sharks confuse humans for prey like fish or seals. He has treated roughly two-dozen victims of shark attacks, with injuries ranging from bitten feet to lacerated torsos. Physicians treat the victims with the "aim of preserving function and tissue," says Lark, while taking extra precautions to protect the open wound from infection.

Your chance of being attacked by a shark is about one in 8 million--the same as being struck by lightning, he says. He urges ocean-swimmers to follow some basic safety rules: Avoid swimming or surfing at dawn or dusk, which is peak feeding time for sharks. Stay away from schools of baitfish that sharks feed upon. The schools often gather just past the breakers, where surfers wait for forming waves.

Lark says he doesn't want to scare anyone away from the ocean. As long as swimmers "exercise reasonable precautions and follow safe behaviors, there is nothing to be afraid of."

Have sharks been given a bad rap? "Media reports are often sensationalized," he says. But he adds that the local newspaper has helped ease the public's fear of sharks by occasionally printing photographs taken by helicopter that show a shark swimming around swimmers and surfers rather than toward them.

It still amazes him how few people are bitten each summer, Lark says, considering how many millions go swimming in U.S. waters, and how many sharks feed right off the coast. He adds, laughing, "If this animal chose to feed on people, we would have a serious problem."