Circling the Web this week is an incredible video showing Valerie Taylor, a world-renowned shark expert, hand-feeding a great white shark off the side of a boat. After placing a fish into the fearsome creature's mouth, she even leans down and pats it on the nose.
"I think the shark and I had an understanding," Taylor says in a voiceover of the footage, which aired in a TV documentary called "Shadow of the Shark." "This one, I had a feeling for."
Great white sharks, according to Yannis Papastamatiou, a research biologist in the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, are intelligent and good learners. Despite the great white's reputation as a vicious hunter, like many wild animals, with enough practice and patience (and fish), researchers can condition them to take handouts from research vessels. It isn't unheard of, Papastamatiou said, for researchers to hand-feed them.
In the video, Taylor does just that, first coaxing the shark progressively closer to the boat using line baited with fish before finally feeding the shark by hand. [Watch the video here]
While this footage might be hair-raising to most of us, it's all in a day's work for Taylor, who, along with husband Ron, has worked in close quarters with great white sharks for decades. She even once swam among great whites with tuna filets stuffed in her chainmail diving suit just to learn more about the way they bite and feed.
"I love it. It's a real thrill to sit down there and have a wild animal trying to chew your arm off. And you're looking into his eye and he's chomping away there and getting nowhere," she said of the incident in an Australian radio interview.
Taylor might seem especially blasé after a lifetime of working with great whites, but in fact the sharks aren't nearly as dangerous as people think.
"This idea that they are very aggressive predators always out to attack humans is totally false," Papastamatiou told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.
The misunderstood hunter
Clearly, the shark in this video is much more interested in the fish handouts than it is in the hand doing the handing. "It seems we are not a preferable food item," Papastamatiou said. "When you look at [great white] attack statistics the actual number of victims who are eaten or consumed is very low. Normally, it's a case of the victim being bitten and then left alone." Some researchers have speculated that humans may be too bony for sharks to easily digest.
According to George Burgess at the Florida Program for Shark Research, there have been 182 nonfatal and 65 fatal unprovoked great white shark attacks worldwide in all of recorded history. [Read: Can Goldfish Really Grow to 30 Pounds?]
No one is quite sure why great whites attack humans when they do, but the prevailing theory is that they are taking "test bites."
"It might be a case of the shark simply investigating a potential prey item it sees on the surface," Papastamatiou explained. "How do you investigate? Well, you have to take a bite out of it. Once it has taken a bite it realizes it's not what it wants, and goes away."
Shark attacks are much rarer than the public perceives them to be, but they are still dangerous animals, Papastamatiou said, and you shouldn't try to replicate the events in this video during your next Australian vacation. "Every time you try and touch an animal of that size you are taking a risk, not because it's a great white specifically, but simply because it's a giant wild animal." [Image Gallery: Great White Sharks]
When studying sharks is your life's work, perhaps you can't worry so much about the risks involved. "There's no time for fear," Taylor once said.