Beady eyes. Massive jaws. Pearly white teeth with serrated edges. It's no wonder sharks scare us. But no matter what you've heard on your local news or seen in movies like Jaws, the fact remains that deadly shark attacks are far more an anomaly than business as usual.
A spate of close encounters of the shark kind over the Fourth of July holiday has summer vacationers on edge, with kayakers from Cape Cod, Mass., to Monterey Bay, Calif., reporting menacing sharks.
If you're planning your summer getaway to a coastal resort, however, rest assured that fatal shark attacks are incredibly rare when considered against the tens of millions of people who venture into the ocean yearly. In fact, fatal unprovoked attacks are so rare that researchers at the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File report just 145 of them worldwide since records began in 1580.
By comparison, there have been twice as many fatal attacks by alligators in the U.S. since 1942 than by sharks. Man's best friend has been even more deadly. Dogs are responsible for more than 200 human fatalities in the last decade alone. Bees kill an average of 500 people worldwide annually.
Of the 75 shark bites that happened last year around the world, only a dozen were fatal -- and all of the fatalities were near small islands where the victim couldn't get speedy emergency service.
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Scientists note that sharks are much more afraid of us than we are of them -- and they've got good reason. According to United Nations estimates, more than 10 million sharks are killed each year for their fins -- a figure many conservationists consider an underestimate.
Even Peter Benchley -- the author who instilled terror in millions of moviegoers with his best-selling novel Jaws, which he helped turn into a movie -- said to a group in Hong Kong in 2000 that you are much more likely to be killed by bees, dogs, bats, and certainly in Hong Kong, automobiles.
Benchley was in Hong Kong, the world's largest importer of shark fins, to urge governments to protect sharks, acknowledging that the concepts upon which Jaws was based were mostly erroneous.
Back then it was thought and accepted by everybody that great white sharks targeted human beings, the demonizer-turned-protector said. Now we know that great white sharks, and indeed all sharks, avoid people, and 70 or 80 percent of the time if they bite a human being it's by accident and they spit the human being out.
Indeed most shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity with the animal mistaking surfers and swimmers for seals and other marine animals. Merely nudging a human being is the most common interaction, and if sharks do bite, they typically let go in search of a more usual prey. This is because shark teeth are lined with nerve endings that can sense the calorie-rich blubber of a seal as opposed to the bone and muscle filling most humans.
When sharks do attack, it's most likely to happen on the weekend, according to George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File. In a 2010 study, he found that attacks are most likely to occur on Sunday in less than 6 feet of water during a new moon. The reason: that's when a lot of surfers are in the water, many of whom wear black-and-white suits.
Yet, Burgess puts the odds of being attacked by a shark at just one in 11.5 million. It seems most of us frolicking in the water, with blubber or without, remain safe.