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Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Wednesday, August 30, 2000

This column is never

I was feeling really proud of the news media for telling the story of French sailboarder Alain Goenvec being injured recently by a shark off Maui without using the phrase "shark-infested waters." The feeling lasted for about 10 minutes. I then came across the story of two Cuban refugees who "both drowned last week in shark-infested waters off the coast of Florida."

Who started this "shark-infested" nonsense and can we stop it? Hawaii writers show the most restraint in not using the ridiculous description. But by the time mainland wire editors get their hands on any plane crash, boat sinking or missing persons, our waters are suddenly shark-infested.

But even local publications slide in the anti-shark spin from time to time. We reported in these pages not long ago that 950 crew members of the USS Indianapolis were set adrift in "shark-infested waters of the South Pacific" after the ship was torpedoed in World War II.

We also reported that while attempting to circle the globe in a hot-air balloon, American adventurist Steve Fossett "plummeted 29,000 feet ... into the shark-infested sea below."

And, of course, wire reporters couldn't help themselves earlier this year when Leonardo DiCaprio found himself in "shark-infested waters off Thailand when the boat he was in started to sink."

Knock it off! It might have been cute, even chilling, when the first writer used the phrase "shark-infested waters" a couple of hundred years ago. But it's a stupid cliche now, not to mention just dead wrong.

HERE'S a secret: Sharks don't infest the oceans any more than people infest houses. It's too bad that some people are injured by sharks, like the French sailboarder. But the water he was playing in was just as "infested" with tuna, whales, groupers and shrimp as it was with sharks. You never hear of a hot-air balloonist plummeting 29,000 feet into "shrimp-infested waters," although there are a heck of a lot more shrimp than sharks.

You also never hear of a tuna being attacked in a "people-infested house."

("It was horrible," the lucky tuna told the Associated Fish wire service. "I accidentally fell out of the aquarium and found myself in the people-infested house. One of the people grabbed my fin while another tried to cut me up and add mayo and celery to me. I've got the scars here to prove it.")

To their credit, most of the people involved in shark attacks or being dumped into the ocean never refer to the waters as being "shark-infested."

After the French guy was attacked, other sailboarders shrugged it off. You enter the ocean, you enter the food chain, they say. You can get just as injured on car-infested highways, they point out.

But writers feel the need to jazz things up and many of them are too lazy to jazz them up in their own words. They grab any old cliche off the shelf. Legislative bills are not worked on, they are "hammered out." Pity the leader of a country we don't like once the press dubs him a "strongman." The U.S. Marines aren't far behind. And how many times do we have to see Hawaii portrayed by the world press as being in the "south seas?" (Check it out, mainland editors: Hawaii is ABOVE the equator.) And those examples are just the, uh, uh, tip of the iceberg.

I suspect that more people are injured (at least psychologically) every day plunging into cliche-infested news coverage than the millions of people who dip a toe in the world's oceans.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to

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