If you are planning a beach vacation, you’ve probably wondered: Should you be worried about shark attacks? How common are they?

The short answer: Not as common as you might think.

shortfin mako shark
Despite the huge amount of publicity any such incidents receive online and off, in any given year — and on average — there are about 70 reported instances of sharks attacking humans around the world. Of those, approximately five per year worldwide are fatal.

Shark bite statistics

Dangerous shark attacks can happen in both saltwater and freshwater, but the majority of attacks happen in the ocean waters around the coast of Florida, for an average of 24 per year. Other attack hotspots include Hawaii, the California coast — and the place with far more fatalities from shark bites than any other area: Australia.

Here are the totals for unprovoked shark attacks worldwide (dating back to 2000) according to the official record from Ichthyology Division at the Florida Museum of Natural History — the International Shark Attack File:

2013: 72
2012: 81
2010: 79
2009: 63
2008: 53
2007: 69
2006: 56
2005: 59
2004: 65
2003: 53
2002: 65
2001: 73
2000: 80

Shark bait: Why do sharks bite people?

Attempts to understand the “why” of shark bites are complicated by some significant challenges, notes a fact sheet published by the State of Hawaii, namely:

  • We don’t have a very good understanding of shark behavior in general, and trying to extend what little we know of normal behavior to rare and unusual behaviors, like bites on humans, is difficult.
  • There is considerable variation in the behavior of sharks — not only of different species, but also among individuals within a species, so attempts to generalize shark behavior have serious limitations. People who spend a lot of time studying sharks in the wild often comment on their behavioral differences. Certain sharks seem to be very cautious and wary when approaching potential prey items, whereas others of the same species are much more aggressive.
  • We usually have no idea what a shark was doing in the moments just prior to biting someone. Therefore, in most cases, it’s impossible to even speculate on what led up to the incident.
Shark attack prevention

There are some steps you can take to avoid a shark attack when one is in the water — however do be warned that there is no way to completely eliminate risk… except to not swim when sharks are — or may be — present.

Some things you can keep in mind:
  • Avoiding water at dawn, dusk, or night when sharks tend to feed.
  • Avoid swimming alone, and if possible avoid being on the edge of a group.
  • Avoid wearing shiny jewelry, bright swimsuits/clothing, and having tan lines — all of which are known to attract sharks.
  • Sharks tend to hang out near steep dropoffs and between sandbars — stay away from these areas.
  • Refrain from excess splashing and keep pets out of the water — they move erractically and can attract sharks.
  • This seems obvious, but we’ll say it anyway — if you are bleeding from an open wound or menstruating, don’t even go in the water.
  • One more obvious one — don’t antagonize, poke, prod, tease, or otherwise mess with the shark(s).

This is by no means a complete list, but it certainly covers some of the most common situations. (See more ways to reduce the odds here.)

Again, if sharks are sighted in the area, the safest and only guaranteed way to keep from getting bitten is simply, well — as they said in Jaws — don’t go in the water.

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What should you do, or not do, if you see a shark in the water? The first tip offered in the International Shark Attack File, via the Florida Museum of Natural History, is to stay calm and maintain your position in as quiet a manner as possible, with the hope that any sharks will leave of their own accord. Get more advice for divers encountering a shark here.


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About: Photo of a tagged shortfin mako shark by Walter Heim, via the NOAA

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