Hello Ralph, welcome to Sharkman’s World
Sharkman: Thank you for accepting to do this interview.
Ralph: Hello Alex. It is an honour to be in the company of so many notable people. I’m very flattered.
Sharkman: Ralph, you are one of them, and it is my pleasure to have you here. How long have you been interested in sharks?
Ralph: My interest in sharks probably ‘surfaced’ at about 13 years of age. I’m currently 56. It was during summer when I made my first night time fishing trip to Malibu Pier at Malibu Beach, California. A classmate had told me that you could catch sharks off the pier in the evening. It must have been about 9:00 or 10:00 pm that first night when a fisherman landed a Dogfish Shark (Squalus acanthias). It was a female and no sooner had she been brought up onto the pier than she began to abort her young. My brothers and I began picking them up to throw them into the ocean, but were told by the fisherman that the young sharks wouldn’t live. This incident was instrumental in starting me on a path of discovery. Why wouldn’t those sharks have lived, had we thrown them back into the sea? How many species of sharks were common to the California coast? I spent almost the entire following day at the public library near my home to learn more about sharks.
Sharkman: Wow! That is 40 years of working in shark research!!
Ralph: Yes. I’ve spent the last four decades documenting shark attacks from around the globe, but primarily from the Pacific Coast of North America. This research has also provided valuable data for those species of sharks that are indigenous to this geographic region. In addition to investigating shark attacks, I’ve been able to obtain a vast amount of data on Great White Shark encounters, captures, strandings and their predatory behaviour. I’ve been very fortunate to have met and worked with many fine commercial and sport fishermen as well as divers and surfers, as well as many research colleagues. Many of these individuals voluntarily provided Great White shark data that has been catalogued in my biology, behaviour and human interaction files.
Sharkman: What prompted this interest at a time when sharks were considered more as killers?
Ralph: Although there had been a couple of fatal shark attacks off the California coast in the early 1950s, sharks had not yet attained their ‘killer’ reputation with the masses. That would build slowly over the following decades and come to its zenith in the mid-1970s with the release of several shark movies, most notable ‘Jaws’. My primary interest at this young age was in their biology.
Unfortunately, there were few books on the subject making my quest for knowledge very frustrating. Then in 1959 two fatal Great White shark attacks occurred off California within a 5-week period. TV stations and newspapers ran stories about sharks for several weeks following each fatal attack. It was almost impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV newscast without hearing a story about sharks. Usually the stories focused on gruesome fatal attacks that had been attributed to sharks. My initial reaction was to question why there had been so few of these attacks with so many people using the ocean for sport. Swimmers, divers and surfers crowded the beaches up and down the California coast. I could only find 8 cases of shark attack in the local newspaper archives for the 1950s decade. In several of the follow up stories that persisted after these two fatal attacks in 1959 a scientist from the California Academy of Science in San Francisco was mentioned as a shark expert. I contacted him and thus began my relationship with renowned ichthyologist W. I. Follett. He became my mentor and was kind of a ‘guidance counsellor.’ We remained good friends over the next four decades. Bill allowed me to assist with his investigation of the Albert Kogler and Robert Pamperin attacks in 1959. Thus began my interest in, and first investigation of, a Great White shark attack on a human.
Sharkman: Ralph, I know that since then, you have been keeping records of shark incidents around California and Oregon. How far back do your records go and what does this work involve?
Ralph: My records of authenticated unprovoked shark attacks cover the entire 20th Century. The first confirmed attack for the Pacific Coast occurred off Bay Farm Island (San Francisco Bay) in 1926. The investigation of an unprovoked shark attack consists of interviewing the victim and any witness/es and completing a three-page questionnaire that I developed in the early 1970s.
Additional interviews are held with rescue personnel and the physicians that treated the victim if they were injured by the shark. A completed unprovoked shark attack case history file will usually contain, completed questionnaires by the victim and witness/es, copies of newspaper articles, records from emergency rescue personnel, medical reports and physician statements, photograph of injuries, equipment (surfboards) and the attack location, law enforcement documents and any other pertinent reports or statements. It typically will take up to a year to complete acquisition of this material for a shark attack case history file.
Sharkman: Were there times when you discovered fake reports?
Ralph: Over all these many years I’ve probably only run into three or four cases that I, and several colleagues, determined to be questionable cases of unprovoked shark attack. These cases all involved a victim that survived their reported attack, but for numerous reasons were never available for interview or would not complete a questionnaire. All of these questionable shark attack cases were reported in California newspapers, which caused a good deal of TV media attention for the victims. Following the publication of these stories the victims were reluctant to speak with me, or other researchers. Over the years I’ve interviewed scores of victims and over a hundred witnesses, which makes it difficult for someone to fake a shark attack report.
Sharkman: What is your opinion on the “Mistaken Identity” theory in shark incidents?
Ralph: I think ‘Mistaken Identity’ is a valid motivation for some Great White shark attacks on humans, but not nearly as many as you are lead to believe. Having said that, I feel I must explain a little more in detail.
Sharkman: I knew it was a very tricky question, so please go on.
Ralph: I will endeavor to be as brief as possible.
‘Mistaken Identity’ had its origins in the mid to late 1970s. In order to understand its origin I need to briefly relate what Great White shark research was being undertaken at that time. In the early 1970s, excluding the work of my friend and colleague H. David Baldridge, then Curator of the International Shark Attack Files, only W. I. Follett, Daniel J. Miller and I were actively documenting and investigating shark attacks from the Pacific Coast. It was during this period that the idea of ‘Mistaken Identity’ first arose. Originally, this hypothesis was only applicable to attacks by Great White sharks on humans. It was thought that the attacking Great White shark had mistakenly identified a human for a pinniped. Several preliminary research reports of Great White shark predatory attacks on marine mammals from this same geographic area seemed to support this hypothesized motivation. However, there were many cases that Dan and I investigated in which we did not believe the motivation had been ‘Mistaken Identity.’ Today, I’ve heard ‘Mistaken Identity’ also used as the reason, or motivation, for a Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas) attack on a swimmer off Florida. It was reported that the shark had mistaken the swimmers foot or leg for a fish.
Sharkman: Well actually, most shark incidents are being labelled as “Mistaken Identity”. In most of the reports I read, I find comments like: “… most probably the shark mistook the victim for food…”
Ralph: Before researchers label a shark attack as ‘Mistaken Identity,’ I believe a determination of the species of shark responsible for the incident to be an absolute necessity. Why do we want to identify the species of shark responsible for an attack before attempting to determine its motivation for attacking its victim?
Sharks do not always bite a human because they ‘mistake’ them for a natural prey. Pinnipeds are seldom found in the stomach contents of the Shortfin Mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), yet this species has been implicated in attacks on humans. There are more than two-dozen species of sharks that have been implicated in attacks on humans, and many more that are considered potentially dangerous. Yet very few of these sharks consume pinnipeds as part of their natural diet. Since the majority of my research has involved the Great White shark, that will be the species this discussion will center on. In order for a human to be mistaken for a pinniped, either water visibility must be negligible or the sharks vision very poor. In the case of the Great White shark, not only do they have excellent visual acuity they also have the ability to see colors. In fact, according to our friend and esteemed colleague Rick Martin of ReefQuest, a Great White sharks ratio of rods to cones (4:1) is comparable to that of a human. With this in mind, how could a Great White shark possibly mistake a human for a pinniped?
Sharkman: One theory says that the silhouettes of a surfer and diver look very much like that of a pinniped.
Ralph: Pinnipeds are solid from tip of snout to hind flippers. A human’s image is solid on top and divided into two elongated appendages at mid-body (our legs).
A pinnipeds movements throughout the water column are smooth, graceful and sometimes swift while a diver is slow, sluggish, and usually associated with ‘bubbles’ (air supply). A surfboard’s silhouette is also not very reminiscent of a pinnipeds shape or movements. Pinnipeds move throughout the water column as opposed to a surfboard that because of its buoyancy can only move across the surface.
Ralph: I also find it difficult to believe that a Great White shark would mistake an ocean kayak for a natural prey. A kayak’s silhouette could be representative of a small marine mammal (whale) if its movement through the water were more natural. Whales bend, exhale air (noise audible underwater), descend and ascend throughout the water column. A kayak only moves across the surface in a straight line and its shape is ridged. If anything, I would tend to believe that a Great White shark might strike these objects because they do not represent a natural prey and exhibit actions (movements) that are unfamiliar to the shark. The only way to determine if any of these ‘strange objects’ are edible is to take a bite.
Additional analysis of the ‘Mistaken Identity’ motivation for Great White shark attacks revolves around inanimate objects. If we assume Great White sharks only bite things that resemble a natural prey, why do they attack boats? It is not due to galvanic action with metal plates on the bottoms of the boats. Boats are usually struck violently by a Great White shark moving swiftly through the water. Because the electrical field emitted by such galvanic action is only detectable by the shark when within a metre of the plate, this minute electrical field could not trigger an attack that was initiated or commenced many metres further away. In addition to boats, what natural prey does a crab trap buoy represent to a Great White shark? The buoys are shaped like a ‘cruise missile,’ floating at the surface. They are coloured blue and yellow (Great White sharks see color), and are 14 inches in length and 8 inches in diameter. I am unaware of any natural Great White shark prey that resembles a crab trap buoy.
Ralph: Does a rectangular, white and gray colored styrofoam board being towed at the surface resemble a natural prey to a feeding Great White shark?
I use the word ‘feeding’ because ‘Mistaken Identity’ assumes the shark believes it is attacking a natural prey, or food. Therefore, ‘Mistaken Identity’ attacks are also a ‘Predatory Attack.’ None of these objects resemble a natural prey, yet they are bitten and/or attacked by Great White sharks. Why?
Sharkman: I believe that it is more a case of “Investigation” than actually “Mistaken Identity”.
Ralph: ‘Mistaken Identity’ is probably a valid motivation for some of the unprovoked Great White shark attacks on humans. However, yes, there are probably several other valid motivations for these attacks as well, including ‘Investigation’ and the ‘Defence of a Territory.’ ‘Investigation’ of an unfamiliar object could be the motivation for Great White shark strikes or attacks on inanimate objects, as my colleagues and I discussed in the Academic Press book ‘Great White Sharks’ (1996). Careful scrutiny of the more than 100 cases of unprovoked shark attack reported from the Pacific Coast during the 20th Century reveals that a high percentage might be classified as ‘Investigation.’ This does not mean a number of the remaining cases are not ‘Mistaken Identity’ or ‘Territorial’ in motivation. Until science can observe the Great White shark in its environment, without the observer being observed, we can only hypothesize as to the reasons for their attacks on humans. What I find intriguing is the small number of these incidents that are reported, when one considers the countless numbers of humans that annually enter the waters off the Pacific Coast. The odds are probably more in our favor that you or I will win the California State Lottery (estimated at 23 million to 1) than there is of being attacked by a Great White shark off the Pacific Coast.
Sharkman: You are also President of the Shark Research Committee. What is the work of this committee?
Ralph: Actually, I’m the Founder and President of the Shark Research Committee, which was established as a non-profit scientific research corporation in 1962. At the time of our founding the primary objective of the Committee was to assist Leonard P. Schultz, then Curator of the International Shark Attack File, in documenting unprovoked shark attacks from the Pacific Coast. In addition to the investigation of shark – human interactions, other research projects include behaviour and biology of all elasmobranches that were indigenous to the Pacific Coast.
Sharkman: Ralph, you have written / co-written a number of scientific papers. Can you please give us the titles & references?
Yes Alex I have published a few papers. In chronological order they are:
Collier, Ralph S. (1964). Report on a recent shark attack off San Francisco, California. California Department of Fish & Game. 50 (4): 261-264.
Miller, Daniel J. and Ralph S. Collier. (1981). Shark Attacks in California and Oregon: 1926-1979. California Department of Fish & Game. 67 (2): 76-104.
Collier, Ralph S. (1992). Recurring attacks by White Sharks on divers at two Pacific sites off Mexico and California. Environmental Biology of Fishes. 33: 319-325.
Collier, Ralph S. (1993). Shark attacks off the California Islands: review and update. Third California Islands Symposium: Recent Advances in Research on the California Islands. F. G. Hochberg (editor). Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, California. pp. 453-462.
Collier, Ralph S., Mark Marks and Ronald W. Warner. (1996). White Shark Attacks on Inanimate Objects Along the Pacific Coast of North America. In: Great White Sharks: biology of Carcharodon carcharias. A. Peter Klimley and David G. Ainley (editors). Academic Press. Pp. 217-222.
Sharkman: Do you still have a “Dream” that you wish will come true?
Ralph: Most of us have aspirations, hopes, and dreams. Someday I would like to dive with Great White sharks as you did. Whether my health would permit such a venture at this time is unknown. As far as my dreams are concerned, well, I have a dream that an entrepreneur approaches me and offers an unlimited amount of funding to study the oceans of the world. Encompassed in this study is the ‘Life History of the Great White Shark.’ The funds would be dispersed to investigators and researchers all over the world so that they could study the Great White shark populations indigenous to their geographic area. I figure if you’re going to dream, you might as well dream big. Actually, if the USA would make available to science, in a lump sum, the amount of money spent on the Gulf War, we could provide a perpetual flow of money, forever, to ‘Study the Oceans of the World.’ Can you imagine what we could learn?
Sharkman: Well, my friend, I hope that you will get a chance to dive with the Great White Sharks. It is an awesome experience. (Please give them my regards when you see them.)
As for your “Big Dream” well that is a little harder to come true, since the human race is sadly more interested in destroying this planet for personal gain, then to learn to protect it.
Ralph, what last message would you like to tell my readers?
Ralph: I would like to ask each of your visitors to treat the plants and animals of this world as if they were a family member … because they are. Excluding man, the earth is populated with plants and animals that are beneficial to each other and to the earth. They provide ecosystems that nurture the earth’s continued health and growth. Please do not abuse what has been entrusted to us, instead admire, appreciate and try to understand the reason for its being.
Sharkman: Very true words my friend. Thank you for your time.
Published in December 2003
SHARK ATTACKS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Ralph S. Collier has done over 40 years of research into shark attacks. This book is the result of his work and it presents the most accurate and comprehensive data ever assembled on Shark attacks.
Through bone-chilling accounts in victims’ own words, never before published photographs, detailed maps and charts of attack locations, this work chronicles every known unprovoked shark attack that occurred along the Pacific Coast during the entire Twentieth Century.
Whether you are a Scientist, Researcher, a Shark admirer, or just a Book lover, “Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century – from the Pacific Coast of North America” belongs in your collection.
More info can be found on these links.