Sharks are important predators in the marine world. They have a reputation as bloodthirsty killing machines, but this view is distorted. Sharks are not unique in consuming animals. For example, humans are predators, eating cattle, pigs, chickens, fish, and other creatures.
As apex (top) and meso (mid-level) predators, sharks limit the populations of the animals they eat. This maintains the balance of nature. Sharks occasionally do bite humans, but most bites are feeding events. Sharks sometimes grab humans by mistake. Other times a bite may protect a shark’s space, much as a dog barks at and bites intruders.
The yearly average of unprovoked shark bites on humans globally is 70, resulting in about 5 deaths. These worldwide numbers are small given the millions of humans that enter the water. You have a better chance of dying from a bee sting, a dog or snake bite, or lightning than from a shark bite. You can look at some of these odds on our comparing risks page here.
Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Shark Bite
Although the relative risk of a shark bite is very small, risks should always be minimized whenever possible in any activity. The chances of having an interaction with a shark can be reduced with these tips:
- Always stay with a buddy, since sharks are more likely to approach a solitary individual.
- Do not wander too far from shore. Being far from shore also isolates you from any emergency assistance.
- Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep dropoffs, these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
- Avoid being in the water during low light hours (dawn or dusk) and at night when many sharks are most active and feeding.
- Sharks have never been shown to be attracted to the smell of human blood, however, it may still be advisable to stay out of the water if bleeding from an open wound. Also, see Menstruation and Sharks
- Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light may resemble the sheen of fish scales.
- Avoid areas with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial anglers, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of these fishes’ presence.
- Avoid water being used by recreational or commercial anglers.
- Sightings of porpoises or dolphins do not indicate the absence of sharks, both often eat the same food items.
- Use extra caution when waters are murky, some shark species will have just as much trouble seeing as you.
- Avoid uneven tanning, bright-colored and/or high contrasting clothing, sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Refrain from excess splashing, particularly in a single spot. Sharks can hear the low-frequency sounds from splashing and may investigate to see if there is a fish/prey in distress.
- Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present. Slowly and calmly evacuate the water if sharks are seen.
Types of Shark Bites
Provoked bites occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way. These include instances when people are bitten after harassing or trying to touch sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net, and so forth. In these encounters, the shark is responding with defensive behavior. Bites on spearfishers, bites on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net are also classified as provoked bites. These events all involve food. The sharks may bite a person by mistake during the frenzy for food, and habitually fed wildlife may become aggressive towards humans if food is not available. Never feed wildlife!
Unprovoked bites are defined as incidents in which a bite on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark. These represent the most natural examples of shark behavior and are our most widely used data category in research. These events include; mistaken identity hit and run during low visibility conditions, investigation, and on infrequent occasions predation. All of the data publically available on the ISAF website is from unprovoked incidents. This can take three forms:
- Hit-and-Run bites happen near beaches, where sharks try to make a living capturing fish. In pounding surf, strong currents, and murky water, a shark may mistake the movements of humans, usually at the surface, for those of their normal food, fish. The shark makes one grab, lets go, and immediately leaves the area. Legs or feet are often bitten; injuries usually are minor and deaths rarely occur.
- Sneak bites take place in deeper waters. The victim doesn’t see the shark before the interaction. The result can be serious injury or death.
- Bump-and-Bites happen when the shark circles and actually bumps the victim with its head or body before biting. As in the sneak bites, the shark may bite repeatedly and cause serious injury or death.
- Check more incident classifications definitions here.
- Check out more information on unprovoked bite classifications here.
Sharks Under Attack
Although sharks rarely kill humans, humans are killing millions of sharks per year through commercial fishing. Some of this is targeted and some is via accidental or bycatch.
Sharks are blessed with outstanding senses of smell, taste, hearing, and sight; the ability to detect minute changes in water pressure and electromagnetic fields; and other attributes that make them nearly invincible in the sea. Yet they are quite vulnerable to a baited hook and the stress of the fight on a line can be too much for some species to survive. In many areas of the world sharks are becoming overfished and some species are seriously threatened. That said sustainable fisheries for sharks do exist. Many right here in the USA.
More and more people understand that sharks are a valuable part of the ocean environment and many species must be protected. Fishery management plans have been developed in many areas, but similar action is needed in many other regions. Certain species, such as the white, sand tiger, whale, and basking sharks, have received special governmental protection in some countries.
Visit the Shark Attack FAQ page for more information and data about shark bites