Shark 'Attacks'


Deadliest place    More dangerous than sharks    Species involved    Type of bites (Pre 2013)   

Reclassification of bites (Post 2013)    Reason for bites    Prevention    Media impacts

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A shark 'attack' is considered to be an incident involving a shark biting a human, however most shark researchers believe that the phase is misleading and should actually be called 'a shark bite incident'. Every year around 60 shark bite incidents are reported worldwide, although death is quite unusual. Despite the relative rarity of shark bites, the fear of sharks is a common phenomenon, having been fuelled by the occasional instances of serial instances, such as the Jersey Shore shark bite fatalities of 1916 and the Western Australia fatalities of 2011-12, and by horror fiction and films, such as the Jaws series. Almost all shark experts feel that the danger presented by sharks has been exaggerated, and even the creator of the Jaws phenomenon, the late Peter Benchley, attempted to dispel the myth of sharks being man-eating monsters in the years before his death.

According to the international shark attack file, between 1580 and 2007 there were 2199 confirmed shark bite incidents around the world (also see the Australian Shark Attack File).


Check out our list of things more likely to kill you than sharks.


Although Australia is only ranked third highest in terms of global shark bite incidents with 887 attacks, it is ranked the highest in terms of shark fatalities, with 215 fatalities (accurate as of 2012). The United States had the most shark bite incidents in 2001, with 29 out of the 75 reported around the world, but had no fatalities. In 2000, there were 79 shark bites reported worldwide, 11 of them fatal. In 2005 and 2006 this number decreased to 61 and 62 respectively, while the number of fatalities dropped to only four per year. Of these incidents, the majority occurred in the United States (53 in 2000, 40 in 2005, and 39 in 2006). The New York Times reported in July 2008 that there had been only one fatal incident in the previous year. On average, there are 16 shark bite incidents per year in the United States with one fatality every two years. Despite these reports, however, the actual number of fatal shark bites worldwide remains uncertain. For the majority of Third World coastal nations, there exists no method of reporting suspected shark bite incidents; therefore, losses and fatalities at near-shore or sea there often remain unsolved or unpublicised.


Shark Attack InfographicThe deadliest place on earth [To the Top]

In 2012 Australia had the highest amount of fatal shark bite incidents in the world with Western Australia being declared the deadliest place in the world for shark bite incidents. Australia and South Africa's fatality rate for shark bites is approximately 30 percent. The United States has the highest reported amount of shark bites but has the lowest fatality rate with around 4 percent of those biten dying. The United States has had a total of 1,085 incidents (44 fatal) during the past 342 years (1670–2012). According to the International Shark Attack File, the states in the U.S. where the most attacks have occurred in are Florida, Hawaii, California, Texas, and the Carolinas, though attacks have occurred in almost every coastal state. South Africa has a high number of shark bite incidents along with a high fatality rate of 27 percent.

As of 2010, the ISAF recorded a total of 2,320 unprovoked shark bite incidents worldwide since 1580, with 447 bites being fatal. The location with the most recorded shark bite incidents is New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Western nations such as the United States, Australia, both high income countries, and to some extent South Africa, an upper middle income country, facilitate more thorough documentation of shark bites on humans than poorer coastal countries.

The Florida Museum of Natural History compares these statistics with the much higher rate of deaths from other, less feared causes. For example, an average of more than 38 people die annually (in the United States) from lightning strikes, while less than 1 person per year is killed by a shark (in the United States). In comparison, up 73 million sharks are killed every year by humans.

Even considering only people who go to beaches, a person's chance of getting biten by a shark in the US is 1 in 11.5 million, and a person's chance of getting killed by a shark is less than 1 in 264.1 million. Worldwide approximately 2000 people die each year from drowning, whereas the annual number of shark fatalities is 1.


Species involved in incidents [To the Top]

Shark Warning SignContrary to popular belief, only a few sharks are considered to be dangerous to humans. Out of more than 450 shark species, only four have been involved in a significant number of fatal unprovoked attacks on humans: the great white, tiger, bull and the oceanic whitetip. These sharks, being large, powerful predators, may sometimes bite and kill people; however, they have all been filmed in open water by unprotected divers, without incident. The 2010 French film Oceans shows footage of humans swimming next to sharks deep in the ocean. It is possible that the sharks are able to sense the presence of unnatural elements on or about the divers, such as polyurethane diving suits and air tanks, which may lead them to accept temporary outsiders as more of a curiosity than prey. Uncostumed humans, however, such as those surfboarding, snorkellers, or swimmers, present a much greater area of open meaty flesh to carnivorous shark predators.  Some sharks such as the Hammerhead shark seek out prey through electroreception, sensing the electric fields that are generated by all animals due to the activity of their nerves and muscles. Most of the oceanic whitetip shark attacks have not been recorded, unlike the other three species mentioned above. Famed oceanographic researcher Jacques Cousteau described the oceanic whitetip as "the most dangerous of all sharks".

Modern-day statistics show the oceanic whitetip shark as being seldom involved in unprovoked incidents. However, there have been a number of bites involving this species, particularly during World War I and World War II. The oceanic whitetip lives in the open sea and rarely shows up near coasts, where most recorded incidents occur. During the world wars, many ship and aircraft disasters happened in the open ocean, and due to its former abundance, the oceanic whitetip was often the first species on site when such a disaster happened.

Infamous examples of oceanic whitetip bites include the sinking of the Nova Scotia, a steamship carrying 1000 people, that was sunk near South Africa by a German submarine in World War II. Only 192 people survived, with many deaths attributed to the oceanic whitetip shark (although unconfirmed). The same species is thought to be responsible for many of the 60–80 deaths following the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis on 30 July 1945 with tiger sharks also thought to be involved.

Caribbean Reef SharkIn addition to the four species responsible for a significant number of fatal bites on humans, a number of other species have biten humans without being provoked, and have on extremely rare occasions been responsible for a human death. This group includes the shortfin mako, hammerhead, Galapagos, gray reef, blacktip reef, lemon, silky, and blue sharks. These sharks are also large, powerful predators which can be provoked simply by being in the water at the wrong time and place, but they are normally considered less dangerous to humans than the previous species mentioned.

A few other shark species do bite people every year, producing wounds that can potentially kill, but this occurs either specifically because they have been provoked, or through mistaken identity due to water conditions or the like.

In the evening of 16 March 2009, a new addition was made to the list of sharks known to bite humans. In a painful but not directly life-threatening incident, a long-distance swimmer crossing the Alenuihaha Channel between the islands of Hawaii and Maui was biten by a cookiecutter shark. The 2 bites, delivered about 15 seconds apart, were not immediately life-threatening.


Type of bites (Pre 2013) [To the Top]

Before 20122 scientists had defined two types of shark bite incidents, one of which has three subcategories:

Provoked incident: the human touches the shark, pokes it, teases it, or otherwise aggravates/provokes it in some way.

Unprovoked incident:

  • Hit-and-run bite – Usually non-fatal, the shark bites and then leaves; most victims do not see the shark.

  • Sneak bite – Victim will not usually see the shark, and they may receive repeated deep bites. This is the most fatal kind of shark bite.

  • Bump-and-bite – The shark bumps before biting and then normally swims away.


Reclassification of bites (Post 2013) [To the Top]

There are few phrases in the Western world that evoke as much emotion or as powerful an image as the words shark and attack. However, not all shark attacks are created equal.

In a 2013 study, the authors proposed new descriptive labels for shark ‘attacks’ based on the different outcomes associated with specific humanshark interactions, including sightings, encounters, bites, and the rare cases of fatal bites.


Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people. No physical humanshark contact takes place.

Shark encounters: Human-shark interactions in which physical contact occurs between a shark and a person, or an inanimate object holding that person, and no injury takes place. For example, shark bites on surfboards, kayaks, and boats would be classified under this label. In some cases, this might include close calls; a shark physically bumping a swimmer without biting would be labeled a shark encounter, not a shark attack. A minor abrasion on the persons skin might occur as a result of contact with the rough skin of the shark.

Shark bites: Incidents where sharks bite people resulting in minor to moderate injuries. Small or large sharks might be involved, but typically, a single, nonfatal bite occurs. If more than one bite occurs, injuries might be serious. Under this category, the term shark attack should never be used unless the motivation and intent of the animalsuch as predation or defenseare clearly established by qualified experts. Since that is rarely the case, these incidents should be treated as cases of shark bites rather than shark attacks.

Fatal shark bites: Humanshark conflicts in which serious injuries take place as a result of one or more bites on a person, causing a significant loss of blood and/or body tissue and a fatal outcome. Again, we strongly caution against using the term shark attack unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely the case. Until new scientific information appears that better explains the physical, chemical, and biological triggers leading sharks to bite humans, we recommend that the term shark attack be avoided by scientists, government officials, the media, and the public in almost all incidences of humanshark interaction.


Reasons for shark bite incidents [To the Top]

Large sharks species are apex predators in their environment, and thus have little fear of any creature they cross paths with. Like most sophisticated hunters, they are curious when they encounter something unusual in their territories. Lacking any limbs with sensitive digits such as hands or feet, the only way they can explore an object or organism is to bite it; these bites are known as exploratory bites. Generally, shark bites are exploratory, and the animal will swim away after one bite. For example, exploratory bites on surfers are thought to be caused by the shark mistaking the surfer for the shape of prey. Nonetheless, a single bite can grievously injure a human if the animal involved is a powerful predator like a great white or tiger shark.

White Shark Open jawDespite a few rare exceptions, it is thought that feeding is not a reason sharks bite humans. In fact, humans don't provide enough high-fat meat for sharks, which need a lot of energy to power their large, muscular bodies.

Sharks normally make one swift strike and then retreat after realising that a human being is not a suitable prey item and may actually do them harm to consume. This is why you very rarely hear of sharks actually eating people. This allows humans time to get out of the water and hopefully survive if they haven't lost too much blood. Shark attacks may also occur due to territorial reasons or as dominance over another shark species, resulting in an attack.

Sharks are equipped with sensory organs called the Ampullae of Lorenzini that detect the electricity generated by muscle movement; another theory is that the shark's electrical receptors, which pick up movement, pick up the signals like those emitted by wounded fish from someone who is fishing or spearfishing, and thus come close to find the prey fish and instead end up biting the person by mistake.

George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, said the following regarding why people are bitten by sharks: "Attacks are basically an odds game based on how many hours you are in the water".


Prevention [To the Top]

Shark Attack preventionWhile there is no way to completely eliminate the possibility of a shark bite incident when one is in the water, one may take precautions, such as:

  • Avoiding the water at dawn, dusk, or night, when sharks tend to feed;

  • Avoiding areas where sharks generally locate themselves, such as murky waters and steep drop-offs

  • Avoiding swimming alone, always being near a group of people, and if possible, avoiding being at the edge of the group;

  • Refraining from excess splashing or movement;

  • Preventing pets from entering the water;

  • Avoiding shiny jewellery, tan lines and bright clothing, all of which can attract sharks;

  • Avoiding entering water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating;

  • Avoiding areas where prey animals of sharks live, for instance seals;

  • Avoiding areas where the remains of fish have been discarded into the water, such as near fishermen cleaning their catch.

  • Sharks may bite in 2-3 feet of water, so remember to stay closer to shore than that in shark-infested waters.


Media impacts [To the Top]

Inside a Shark's MouthThe effect the media has on the population's view of shark bites has generally been negative. Using such theories as the cultivation theory and the effects of mean world syndrome, it is simple to see how such media as television and movies can quickly affect a person’s view. Starting with the effects generated from news broadcasts, a shark bite is quickly broadcast across the country, particularly if fatal, even though more people die from random occurrences such as lightning strikes than from a shark bite. This will bring the fear of a shark bite to life as it becomes a reality for many that hear of a particular incident. This heightened state of unnecessary fear is accredited to the sometimes negative portrayal of sharks through television and motion pictures. Films such as Jaws were the cause of large-scale hunting and killing of thousands of sharks. There are some television shows, such as the famous Shark Week, that are dedicated to the preservation of these animals. They are able to prove through scientific studies that sharks are not interested in eating humans and generally mistake humans as prey. It is, however, a mixture of these media exposures that keep many people out of the water for fear of a shark 'attack'.


Useful Sources of Information [To the Top]


"Latest Figures". Taronga Conservation Society Australia. 2011-10-12. Retrieved 2012-02-16.

"ISAF Statistics for the Top Ten Worldwide Locations with the Highest Shark Attack Activity (1999–2009)". Florida Museum of Natural History 2010-03-25. Retrieved 2010-09-23.

"ISAF Statistics for the USA Locations with the Highest Shark Attack Activity Since 1999". 2010-05-03. Retrieved 2010-09-23.

"Map of United States (incl. Hawaii) Confirmed Unprovoked Shark Attacks". 2010-08-26. Retrieved 2012-02-16.

"Map of World's Confirmed Unprovoked Shark Attacks". 2011-01-06. Retrieved 2011-11-25.

"North America's top shark-attack beaches". USA Today. 21 April 2008. Retrieved 9 April 2010.

"The Relative Risk of Shark Attacks to Humans". Retrieved 2010-09-23.

"Reducing the Risk of a Shark Encounter: Advice to Aquatic Recreationists". Retrieved 2010-09-23.