Shark attack! The those two words combined strike primal fear in every swimmer and beach-goer in south Florida. Every year, a number of people are attacked by sharks, although death remains quite unusual. Despite the relative rarity of these unfortunate attacks, the fear of sharks is a common phenomenon.

Our deep rooted fear of sharks arouses intense curiosity in those who revel in the ocean — sharks territory. The 1975 blockbuster film ‘Jaws‘ about a man-eating great white shark that terrorizes a small town, created paranoia and fear with audiences everywhere. But primitive fears and Hollywood movies aside, to what extent do we need to really fear sharks and the possibility of being attacked by one? Many shark experts feel that the danger and fear presented by sharks has been much exaggerated, so I turned to the experts at the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), located in Gainesville, FL,  for answers. How many people are attacked each year in Florida? According to the ISAF, Florida has about 30 to 40 unprovoked shark attacks each year. The figure seems like a lot until you figure that millions of people enter Florida oceans each year. Shark attacks are a horrifying reality, but are also quite rare. ISAF data shows that surfers sustain about 60% of the those recorded shark attacks.  Swimmers, divers, and snorkelers account for the other 40%. What kinds of shark attacks are there? ISAF says there are three types of shark attacks:  hit-and-runs, bump-and-bites, and sneak attacks. Hit-and-run attacks are the most common of all shark attacks, and they are often a case of mistaken identity. Of the 30 to 40 shark attacks recorded by the ISAF, this type accounts for a about 20 to 30 of them. Typically, these attacks happen when a shark is searching for food in the surf zone. A lone swimmer can be confused as prey to a hungry shark in the murky waters. The curious shark takes a bite and realizes that the human is not it’s normal prey and continues on it’s way, hoping to find something else to eat. In the meantime, the poor swimmer or surfer is badly injured and bleeding profusely. Bump-and-bite attacks occurs less often, when a shark actually thinks of the person as an intruder to its territory. The shark circles the swimmer, then comes in to bump the victim before ultimately attacking. Bump-and-bite attacks usually occur in deeper waters than do hit-and-runs. Statistics recorded from ISAF show that bump-and-bite attacks result in more fatalities than the hit-and-run variety. Worldwide, the species involved is likely to be identified as a white shark, a bull shark, or a tiger shark. White sharks are uncommon in Florida waters. Sneak attacks are the rarest form of shark attacks, and these are the ones associated with the movie ‘Jaws’. The attacks happen suddenly, with no warning and the shark literally strikes from out of the blue. Sneak attacks differ from the others because the shark may come back to strike again, and there is no mistaken identity. Injuries tend to be more severe than those of other attacks, and fatalities most common. Here again, worldwide, these attacks are likely to involve a white shark, a bull shark, or a tiger shark. What species of sharks attack people in Florida? It is hard to provide accurate statistics on which specific shark attacks the most people because those attacked often can’t identify the shark. Still, most experts believe the most likely culprits in hit-and-run attacks in Florida are the blacktip, spinner, and blacknose sharks.  In Florida alone, the following attacking species appear in order of the number of attributed attacks: bull, blacktip, spinner, hammerhead, nurse, tiger, lemon, sandbar, blue, and mako. Suggested safety tips:

  • Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
  • Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  • Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
  • Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating — a shark’s olfactory ability is acute.