With beady eyes, huge jaws and pearly white teeth the size of our thumbs, it’s no surprise that sharks scare the living daylights out of us. And with a spate of close encounters with the shark kind plastered across the news this summer, one could easily be fooled into thinking that shark attacks are not an anomaly, but rather business as usual at the beach.
If you’re planning a summer getaway to a coastal resort, however, rest assured that fatal shark attacks are, according to statistics, incredibly rare when factored against the number of snorkelers, swimmers, surfers and others who venture into the ocean each year.
According to the International Shark Attack File, a division of the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were 118 alleged incidents of shark-human interactions worldwide in 2012. Upon review, ISAF found 80 of the incidents to be valid and confirmed cases of “unprovoked attacks,” which it defines as “incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark.”
The 2012 figure was up slightly from 2011 when there were 78 unprovoked attacks, but on par with the 2010 total of 82. ISAF said the number of unprovoked shark attacks has grown steadily since 1900, despite an overall decline in shark populations as a result of overfishing and habitat loss.
“The numbers from an international standpoint were on target for the last couple of years because, in theory, each year we should have more attacks than the previous year owing to the rise of human population from year to year,” said George H. Burgess of the Florida Program for Shark Research. “Thus the shark attack rate is not increasing even though the number of shark attacks is rising. Shark attack as a phenomenon is extremely uncommon, considering the millions of hours humans spend in the water each year.”
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Where Do Most Shark Attacks Occur?
North American waters (including Hawaii and the Caribbean) are traditionally a hotbed for unprovoked shark attacks, and 2012 was no exception. Last year, the region recorded more than 50 percent of global incidents with 42 attacks. Of those, 26 occurred off the coast of Florida, slightly above the 10-year average of 23. Hawaii, meanwhile, recorded 10 shark attacks last year, far more than the 10-year average of four. California and South Carolina also had a higher-than-average year with five attacks apiece.
Once again, ISAF said the large number of humans involved in water sports and water leisure in the region contributed to the high figure. And while the U.S. represented a large chunk of the global cases, the fatality rate was notably lower (1.9 percent) than in the rest of the world (22.2 percent).
Australian waters had the second-most shark attacks in 2012 at 14, led by the densely populated state of New South Wales and the white shark haven of Western Australia, with five attacks apiece. The number of fatalities is typically low in Australia, with just two last year and a yearly average of 1.4.
Another hotbed for attacks is the tiny French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, where three people died in seven unprovoked attacks in 2011 and 2012. The most recent shark attack of 2013 also occurred on Reunion, when a 15-year-old French tourist was killed while snorkeling in front of a resort this week. It marked the second fatal shark attack in the island’s waters this year and the ninth overall in three years. ISAF said these statistics “suggest that this small island state has developed a problematic situation where some changes, likely anthropogenic in origin, have contributed to a higher-than usual number of highly deleterious shark-human interactions.”
The coast of South Africa is another shark haven where attacks are more frequent. There were four unprovoked attacks last year, which was on par with the nation’s 10-year average. The number of fatalities, however, was three, compared to an average of just one.
Elsewhere in 2012, attacks occurred in the Canary Islands, Indonesia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Tonga.
All told, just seven fatalities resulted from unprovoked attacks in 2012, down from the 2011 total of 13, but above the 10-year average of 4.4. While the number of attacks may be up, these figures show that the number of fatalities each year is extremely low. In fact, the trend in fatality rate has been one of constant reduction over the past 11 decades thanks to advances in medical treatment and beach safety practices.
Who’s A Target And How To Stay Safe
Statistically, surfers and others participating in board sports are the most likely to be attacked by a shark, representing about 60 percent of cases worldwide each year. Less affected recreation groups include swimmers (22 percent) and divers (8 percent).
Scientists believe surfers bear the brunt of attacks due to the nature of the sport: It takes place in the surf zone, which is often frequented by sharks, and involves kicking and splashing the water.
Most shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity with the animal confusing 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 typical prey. In fact, 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.
If you find yourself eye to eye with a shark, Burgess recommends a proactive response. “Hitting a shark on the nose, ideally with an inanimate object, usually results in the shark temporarily curtailing its attack.
“One should try to get out of the water at this time. If this is not possible, repeat bangs to the snout may offer temporary restraint, but the result is likely to become increasingly less effective. If a shark actually bites, we suggest clawing at its eyes and gills, two sensitive areas. One should not act passively if under attack - sharks respect size and power.”
Shark attacks are more likely to occur during the twilight hours when sharks are most active. Those at greater risk include solitary individuals, those bleeding or menstruating, those swimming with their pets and anyone wearing shiny jewelry that could resemble the sheen of fish scales.
Yet, the risk of a shark attack remains extremely low (about 1 in 11.5 million). There have been just 152 reported fatalities since records began in 1580. By comparison, there have been twice as many deaths from alligators in the U.S. than by sharks. Man's best friend is even more deadly. Dogs are responsible for more than 200 human fatalities in the last decade alone, while the everyday bee kills an average of 500 people worldwide annually.