It’s summer, so beach season is naturally in full swing. A lot of people diving trough coastal areas in the Atlantic and Pacific are worried, however, of being attacked by sharks. So, what are the chances of being attacked by one? In short: really, really slim.
Popular Hollywood flicks like Jaws and its sequels, as well as a sort of deeply rooted anti-shark culture induced by fear (white sharks are considered terrifying by many, and are thus attributed with more credit than justly due), have led to a skewed portrayal of the real risks sharks pose.
While every year there are a number of reported shark attacks, when compared to the actual number of people that actually visit the beaches by the millions, these reports should not bother the casual swimmer if viewed with reason first. For instance, last year, 80 unprovoked shark strikes took place worldwide: Seven resulted in deaths, including one in California. Fifty-three strikes took place in U.S. waters, nearly half of them off Florida according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
In the year 2000, just one person died as a result of shark attacks, meaning at the time the beachgoer faced a 1-in-11.5-million chance of being attacked by a shark, and less than a 1-in-264-million chance of dying from a shark bite. In contrast, beachgoers faced a 1-in-2-million chance of dying from drowning and other causes based on visits to East and West Coast beaches. Here are more numbers: more Americans were killed by collapsing sinkholes (16) than sharks (11) between 1990 and 2006, and more by tornadoes (125) than sharks (6) in Florida between 1985 and 2010.
It’s worth noting, however, that these number might be themselves a bit misleading. Some areas are definitely more prone to attacks than others, like is the case of Florida, and in recent years the number of beach shark sightings have significantly increased. Last year, there were more than 20 confirmed shark sightings at Cape Cod beaches, while this summer some eight sightings were made – consider, however, that the same shark may be responsible for multiple sightings.
The National Park Service has thus issued strict warnings in areas at risk such as Cape Cod, so if you’re hitting the beach be on the look out for such warnings – they’re easy to spot nevertheless. Part of the reason these sightings have increased is the dramatic upsurge in seal populations, which have swelled by the thousands thanks to conservation efforts since the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. White sharks, as well as other species, have seal as a favorite course on their menu. With this in mind, where you’ll find seals, there’s a big chance sharks aren’t too far out.
Currently, researchers like those at the National Park Service are actively pursuing sharks that go near beaches and tag them. Using modern technology (satellite and radio tagging), shark swimming patterns are now typically well layered out so that humans get to interact with them as rarely as possible.
Given the extremely slim chances of being attacked, let alone killed, by a shark, it’s rather ironic that humans have such a great fear of sharks considering millions of sharks are killed every year at our hand. French Polynesia and the Cook Islands joined together to create the world’s largest shark sanctuary, emulating small island nations such as Palau and the Maldives in banning all shark fishing in their waters. In the rest of the world, however, sharks are still hunted down and killed by the millions with little to any intervention from regularity agencies.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.