Fear ecology

I was riveted by this long-form article in the New York Times about the rise of white sharks (aka great white sharks) off the coast of Cape Cod. It may seem like a sensational topic, but that wasn’t how I took it. One has to understand that white sharks were basically unknown in the area until 15-20 years ago. Now they are so numerous during the warm season that, if you know where and how to look, they are everywhere. So the piece is really about how dread creeps onto the surface of a beautiful place, changing how people experience it. Chivers writes that

Risk of attack remains low. But the quantity of large sharks, and fears that have accompanied them, have caused a cultural trauma, reshaping how people experience the ocean and forcing coastal communities into a period of reckoning and adaptation.

I think about fear every day while out in public during this pandemic that is rapidly sliding into status quo. The article discusses what scientists call “fear ecology, a “concept describing the effects predators have on members of a prey species that do not get eaten but whose predator-avoidance strategies carry costs.” That mindset of avoidance, says a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to save a Cape Cod shark attack victim, “hovers over the region: the fear that sharks are going to ruin this idyllic place.”

I don’t avoid some places, people, or situations–bars, for example–because I fear them. It’s more simple than that: I just don’t go to those places. I spare myself the psychic costs of even fear. But what might be worse than fear is forgetting what a place looked like before the fear set in.


C.J. Chivers, “Fear on Cape Cod as Sharks Hunt Again.” The New York Times Magazine. October 21, 2021.

Tags danger uncertainty dread pandemic