Along both US coasts, Americans have heard reports of shark bites and sightings this summer, triggering beach closures and advisories.
But even as shark encounters make headlines this summer, the risk of being attacked by often misunderstood creatures remains low, and many other phenomena are far more dangerous.
Cows and bees kill more people each year than sharks, according to conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
“Your odds of being bitten are a lot like your odds of winning the Powerball,” said marine biology professor Christopher Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach.
In other words: it is unlikely to happen.
Additionally, humans pose a far greater danger to sharks than sea creatures do to us. On average, sharks kill five people a year in unprovoked attacks. Meanwhile, humans kill tens of millions of sharks each year.
Things More Likely Than a Shark to Kill or Injure You
“You have a much greater risk of driving to the beach, or even getting caught in a rip current than you ever would of being bitten by a shark,” Lowe said.
To shed some light on the low likelihood of being attacked by a shark, the Florida Museum of Natural History has a list of phenomena more likely to lead to death and injury.
So before you swear to hit the water on your next trip to the beach, here’s what you need to know:
- In Florida, where the majority of shark attacks in the United States occur, people were nearly 21 times more likely to die in a tornado (125 deaths) than in a shark bite (six deaths) between 1985 and 2010.
- Residents of Florida and five other states with alligators were also more likely to die from a reptile bite (18 deaths) than from a shark bite (nine).
- There were 15,011 bicycle deaths in the United States compared to 14 shark deaths between 1990 and 2009, which means that Americans were a thousand times more likely to die in a bicycle accident than in a shark attack.
- Lightning killed nearly 76 times more people (1,970 dead) than sharks (26) between 1959 and 2010 on the US coast.
- Since 2004, rip currents have caused 45 times more deaths than sharks.
- Dogs killed more than five times as many people (349) as sharks (65) in the United States between 2009 and 2018.
- Inanimate objects even killed more people than sharks. In 1996, toilets injured 43,687 people, ladders injured 138,894 people, and 198,849 people were injured by nails, screws, tacks and bolts. By comparison, there were only 13 shark injuries and fatalities in the same year.
- Between 2000 and 2007, there were 441 hunting deaths, compared to seven shark bite deaths in the United States and Canada.
These numbers are not meant to instill fear at the sight of dogs, toilets or ladders, but rather aim to demonstrate how rare shark attacks are.
Has there been an increase in shark attacks?
Even though the risk of being bitten by a shark remains extremely low, there has been an increase in attacks in 2021, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The numbers are comparable to the five-year international average of 72 attacks per year, but represent an increase from the 52 attacks reported in 2020, when Americans took refuge at home amid COVID-19 restrictions.
It’s common to see year-to-year fluctuations in shark-human interactions, and despite a spike in deaths in 2021, long-term trends show the number of annual shark-bite deaths decreasing, according to the Shark Attack File.
The United States leads the world in the annual number of documented shark bites, with a total of 47 reported in 2021. Most of those attacks have taken place in Florida, according to data compiled by the museum. Surfers and skateboarders accounted for more than half of the reported shark bite victims.
Lowe said the increase can be attributed to climate change and rising temperatures pushing more people to the beach, just as shark populations are recovering and possibly swimming closer to shore to feed.
“The country is hotter than it’s ever been. And that’s going to drive more people into the water than ever before, which just increases the likelihood of someone accidentally getting bitten,” explained the teacher.
However, considering the number of people who go in the water, the probability of being attacked by a shark is very low.
Researchers aren’t sure why sharks sometimes bite people. It’s possible they’re doing it because they feel threatened and are just trying to defend themselves, Lowe said.
“The first thing people need to remember is that this is the house of the shark, and we are guests in their home, and a lot of times we are not good guests,” the professor added.
It’s also possible that sharks sometimes mistake swimmers and surfers for food. Sharks might see a hand or foot in the water and mistake it for a small fish. A tiger shark or a white shark could even mistake a human for a seal or a sea turtle.
Some attacks are “cases of mistaken identity,” occurring in conditions of poor water visibility, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“People are bitten but rarely eaten, and that tells us we’re not on the shark menu,” Lowe said.
Sharks don’t care about us
Lowe and his team at Shark Lab used drones to study shark behavior around humans along the California coast.
“After two years of watching hundreds of hours of footage, our conclusion is that sharks ignore people,” Lowe said.
Drone video from Shark Lab shows sharks swimming peacefully near unsuspecting paddleboarders, sometimes close enough for humans to lean in and touch them.
“People have been taught to fear sharks, thinking that if the shark is around it’s going to bite, and we know that’s not true,” Lowe said.
Still, shark attacks can happen on rare occasions, so it’s good to remember if you ever encounter one, turn towards it, so it knows you can see it, and back away slowly.
“The ocean is a wild place. It’s not Disneyland, your safety is not guaranteed,” Lowe said.
We hope you enjoy your next summer trip to the beach! For those looking for more shark content, “Shark Week” on sister network CNN Discovery kicks off on Sunday.
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