Shark Attacks! How Common are They? Where do They Occur?

Last week in Australia, one man's day at beach could have turned into a disaster: He was attacked by a seven-foot bronze whaler shark while surfing about 100 yards out from Sydney's Bronte Beach.

Fortunately, the man, Simon Letch, stayed calm and "shoved the board at [the shark] like a barge pole." After taking two bites of the fiberglass board, the shark swam away and Letch surfed back to shore.

"It was only about 10 or 15 seconds that I was waiting for a wave but it seemed like an eternity," Letch said.

You'd think that this Jaws-style attack would have kept Letch on land, at least for the rest of the day, but the lifeguard said he came back 30 minutes later, replacement board in hand, ready to surf.

Afraid to Get Back in the Water?

Just how likely are you to come across your own "Jaws" while wading in the surf or snorkeling with some Angel Fish?

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), 1,909 confirmed shark attacks have occurred around the world-between 1580 and 2003! Of these, 737 happened in the United States, and 38 people died as a result. Hardly alarming numbers, but the actual number of shark attacks isn't really known because many areas keep them under wraps so tourism isn't affected.

Unprovoked shark attacks, the kind where a shark in its natural habitat attacks a (live) human without any apparent reason, do seem to be on the rise, though, say the researchers behind ISAF.

In 2004, there were 61 unprovoked shark attacks recorded worldwide (seven were fatal), up from 57 in 2003. Overall, this number has been growing for the past 100 years, and more people were attacked in the 1990s than in any other decade (and so far it seems that the current decade will break last decade's record).

***** Your odds of being attacked by a shark? 1 in 11.5 million, says the International Shark Attack File. Being killed by a shark? 0 in 264.1 million. Your risk of drowning, for comparison? 1 in 2 million. *****

Keep in mind, though, that if you're involved in a shark attack that's deemed "provoked," that attack will not be included in the tally. What constitutes a provoked shark attack or an attack that's not "unprovoked"? Those that involve:

* Sharks and divers in public aquaria or research holding pens

* "Scavenge damage" to already dead humans (typically drowning victims)

* Attacks on boats

* Attacks in which a human initiates contact with a shark (such as a diver grabbing a shark)

Why are shark attacks on the rise? It's less complicated than you may think ? Say the researchers at ISAF, it's because humans are spending more time in the water.

Where Are Shark Attacks Most Common?

Though images of Great Whites gliding through Australia's Great Barrier Reef may come to mind, most shark attacks happen in North American waters. Within the United States, shark attacks happen most often in Florida and then in:

* California

* Texas

* Hawaii

* North Carolina

* Alabama, Oregon and South Carolina (tied)

Worldwide, after North American waters, the most shark attacks occur in:

* Australia

* Brazil

* South Africa

* Reunion Island (in the Indian Ocean)

* The Bahamas, Cuba, Egypt, Fiji, New Zealand and Venezuela (tied)

***** In the United States, you're more likely to be killed by a deer (through auto accidents), dog, snake or mountain lion than you are by a shark. *****

How to Prevent Shark Attacks

First and foremost, if you want to be sure a shark won't attack you ? don't go in the ocean. Next on the list is, don't go in the water if you see a shark, and then don't go in if you're bleeding-sharks can detect even minute amounts of blood from very far away (this applies even to menstruating women). The Florida Museum of Natural History Ichthyology Department offers these other shark safety tips:

* Swim in groups-sharks are most likely to attack a person who's alone.

* Don't swim too far from shore (you're farther away from help and more isolated).

* Don't go in the water at night or during twilight hours when sharks are most active.

* Leave shiny jewelry at home-a shark could mistake it for shiny fish scales.

* Don't swim in areas used by commercial or sport fisherman where bait is used often (if there are diving seabirds around, it's likely this is the case).

* Don't swim if you have an uneven tan-sharks don't like tan lines! (seriously, the contrast could attract them).

* The same goes for bright colored clothing-sharks may be attracted to it.

* Don't splash excessively or swim with pets (who may thrash around and attract a shark).

* Be careful around steep drop-offs or when between sandbars (these are two areas sharks love).

What to do if a Shark Attacks

In the unlikely event that a shark does attack ? swim ? and fast. Seriously, if you see a shark the best thing to do is stay calm and swim quickly, but smoothly, back to the shore or surface.

If the shark actually attacks, you should first try to hit it on the tip of its nose (use whatever you have with you-a spear or camera if you're diving, a surfboard as Letch did, or your own fist). The shark should go away long enough for you to calmly, but quickly, swim away (Discomforting side note: If you can't get away, and the shark comes back, hitting it on the nose will become less and less effective).

If the shark bites and you're stuck in its mouth, be as aggressive as you can. Go for the sensitive areas of the eyes and gill openings and hit the shark, hard. Don't "play dead," as this won't help. As soon as the shark releases, get out of the water as quickly as you can (don't hang around because once there's blood in the water, the shark will likely come back to attack again).

Chances are very, very small of being attacked by a shark, though, so don't let Hollywood's version of a man-eating Jaws (or the disturbing images of the film "Open Water") keep you from enjoying the surf.

If it makes you feel any better, there are plenty of other things to worry about while you're at the beach that are more likely to happen than a shark attack ? things like dehydration, jellyfish and stingray stings, cutting your foot on a seashell, sunburn, and sand getting wedged in private places, just to name a few.



Seattle Post-Intelligencer April 19, 2005

International Shark Attack File


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