DIspelling the myths about sharks

There are man-eating sharks out there, but most large sharks like the Nurse Shark are a minimal threat. And the bulk of shark species are harmless. There are around 375 species of shark and only around a dozen are considered dangerous, with the 'deadliest' three being the Great White, Tiger Shark and Bull Shark, although some believe the Bull Shark is number one.  Most diving encounters with Great White Sharks are with cage dives, but divers often dive with Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks. Why swim with these potential man-eaters that can attack and even eat a human. Let’s dispel the myths and look at the facts.

Attacks by sharks are infrequent, especially attacks by an actual 'man-eating' sharks and many argue that the few dangerous species of shark are not really interested in humans. After all, there are many Great Whites along the Californian coast but attacks are rare, about one to two a year despite all those sharks and surfers out there. Perhaps young sharks attack people before finding out they don't like them? If this was true, there would far more attacks by young sharks. Perhaps, with their amazing senses, they perceive we are rather boney, a bit odd, and not worth the bother! And most sharks are also wary of humans (divers often see Greater Hammerheads swimming away on the edge of vision).

Man-eating sharks are certainly out there, with most cases down to the 'deadly three', and a predatory attack is going to be more likely to occur with a larger shark. But it is still rare.

In 2014 there were only 72 records unprovoked attacks by sharks (how many attacks by other people in a big city every weekend!) and just THREE recorded fatalities!  In 2015 there were FOUR, compared to 652 due to people falling off chairs!

It would be interesting to look at the actual percentage of attacks where it is (a) a provoked attack, (b) an unprovoked 'attack', (b) where a limb is taken, and (d) the victim eaten, an actual man-eating shark.

There are those cases where a large shark has attacked and fed once on a human, before going on to do a spate of fatal attacks. JAWS is based on such an incident, and Peter Benchley regretted portraying Great Whites as senseless killers, and went on to spend much of his life campaigning for sharks. In other cases a shark may take a limb and the person may bleed to death, rather than being 'eaten'.  In a few ’man-eating’ cases the victim may have already died, such as a drowning victim. It is also thought that some 'man-eating' sharks (like some big cats) start to attack live victims after initially feeding on dead bodies (often the case in WWII with Oceanic Whitetips). It may also be that Bull Shakes heading up rivers (they can go into freshwater) start by feeding on human carcasses first.

Crucially, most shark attacks are just that - an 'attack' - and most will survive. Fatalities that do occur due to an 'attack' may be a mistaken but catastrophic 'feeding attack’ with a big shark attacking what it thinks is prey before swimming way, or from bleeding/shock/drowning from a 'bite', even from quite a small shark in some cases. These fatalities appear to be most of the deaths caused by sharks, not by actual man-eaters, and it would be interesting to compare the statistics between 'attack' deaths and deaths due to actual predation by sharks. Also in non fatal attacks between being 'bitten' and a limb actually being taken. So why may a shark attack you if it isn't a 'man-eating' shark? 

Sharks Mistake People for Their Natural Prey

Could it be a case of mistaken identity? In such cases, in a mistaken attack by a smaller shark, the victim is far more likely to survive. If a large shark attacks a human assuming it was something else (e.g. a seal) and that shark was in attack mode, there is an increased chance the victim will be badly injured, or a fatality, the victim even bitten in half but not actually 'eaten'! In 2015 there was a lot of publicty about shark attacks in Australia with many assuming sharks were attacking lots of people. There was an increase in unprovoked attacks in Australia in 2015, to 22 unprovoked sharks attacks, with one fatality! Of the 22 attacked, 18 were surfers, and 16 of the 22 attacks were known to be Great Whites, large sharks that often come up from below, as they would attack a seal, mistaking the profile of a surfer for a seal. But look at the statistics and let it sink in, considering all the Great Whites and surfers that are out there everyday in Australia! And for more interesting statistics on shark attacks, and fatal attacks by other animals, check out the fascinating statistics at the end of this article under - beware of coconuts.

Of course, once in attack mode, some sharks may continue the attack, although it was not the expected prey initially. In other cases the shark may intially attack and bite (and even result in the loss of a limb), but then hold back, realising its mistake with this strange animal it has just attacked. Mistaken 'prey' attacks do occur but are probably not that common considering a Great White can tell the species, the age and even the health of a seal, before attacking. Furthermore a seal will have lots of meat and blubber, whilst a human is rather bony, and with all the senses a shark has, a human must be be rather odd and unappealling, and they may even be wary of this strange animal in their underwater realm. 

There are ways to avoid being ’mistaken’ for shark prey. In areas with seals where Great White Sharks occur, a bright wetsuit/drysuit is a better idea than wearing an all dark suit that mimics the colour of a seal, and it is not a good idea to dive in a murky area where sharks attack seals.  With the Great White Shark, attacks are more likely near the surface, since the shark often come up from below to take seals, often at great speed.  At the last moment it might be a bit difficult for a shark to stop if it realises the snorkeller or surfer at the surface was not the expected prey! To prevent this surfers are looking into ways to put off sharks from attacking in the first place, whether deliberate or mistaken identity! In tropical waters close to feeding sharks the flash of a hand may be mistaken for the flash of a distressed fish and wearing dark gloves lessens confusion.

But I want to make it clear that attacks due to mistaken identity probably does not explain a lot of shark attacks considering sharks are so in tune with their environment.

People swimming, surfing, or diving in areas with lots of bait  fish

It would appear that a number of attacks on surfers occurs when they are in areas with lots of bait fish that is attracting feeding sharks, especially in murky waters such areas where rivers meet the sea, or currents meet. But attacks are still infrequent, whilst surfers and swimmers often use these area for many years with no attacks.  There is also the suggestion that some attacks occur when there have been significant changes in prey availablity and changes in sea currents, hungry sharks become less wary and more inquistive in checking out and even attacking a human.

Shark Feeding Is Resulting in Increasing Shark Attacks

Concerning shark feeds, especially with shark attacks in Florida, many blame shark feeding for sharks loosing their fear and attacking people. Statistically Florida has the most shark attacks in the world but this has been the case for a number of years and well before shark feeding for divers started. Furthermore, most Florida attacks are by sharks that have nothing to do with the shark feeds that are also a long way from the attack sites.  Also, for decades, and in some cases over a hundred years, sharks have been fed close to fishing venues, when fish remains are thrown away at designated locations, whilst people have swam safely at nearby beaches.

Countless divers attend shark feeds and happily explore areas around the shark feeding locations with no one been bitten and the few cases where a shark bites a divers, it comes from an over eager shark biting someone by mistake, usually where a diver has got too close to the action. And it is best to wear gloves to the hide the pale colour of the hand so the shark does not mistake the white flash of colour for a bit of a dead fish if the diver gets too close to the action. So it is important that a shark feed is well run with relevant guidleines, and the best are those where the sharks come into to feed at a baited area with divers watching from a relevant distance away. Where sharks are hand fed it should only be done by a trained guide who offers food on the end of a stick. From my own experience sharks are rather relaxed around shark feeds and there is more hassle from large fish wanting to get in on the action.

Shark Attacks Out of Curiosity

Many sharks are wary around humans and if you do get a curious shark it can be an amazing experience for a diver when a shark swims closely by to check you out. I have had a curious but friendly Blue Shark brushing past me, a bit like a curious dog sniffing me, Black-tipped Reef Sharks swimming around my legs in a shallow lagoon, and Caribbean Reef Sharks swimming right next to me (the main sharks featured in the film Thunderball!). In all these cases the sharks did not look upon me as prey, but were just curious, and I read the situation and realised I was no threat to them.

The next step for sharks when they are curious about something, is to 'bump' or brush past an object to check it out, and, then, a further step, to gently bite and mouth the object, but not biting down. Experts now believe many ’attacks’ are by sharks being inquisitive by chasing then mouthing an object, rather like a dog chasing and grabbing a stick, and if it happens to be you it can be rather distressing! It would also appear that Tiger Sharks often have such exploratory 'bites' (e.g. on surfers) and if that bite cuts through an artery, people can bleed to death. And it is the loss of blood, and shock, that causes most deaths in shark attacks, rather than being 'eaten', or a limb taken. But in most cases it is a nip or even just a gentle ’hold’. If a shark does bump you the best thing is to move away, or give it a thump back so it knows you are not to be messed with - after all you are another large animal. These sort of 'curious bites' attacks occur, but considering the low number of such attacks in many surfing areas with the number of surfers out there, they are not so frequent as one would expect.

Sharks will also mouth and bite diving cylinders, electrical equipment, and shark cages, since they are attracted to the metal and electrical pulses, but it is not an actual attack. But in some cases it can end up with a curious shark biting someone. In most cases that will be it, but in some cases, as the victim panics and there is blood in the water, a shark could go into attack mode.

Sharks Attack Because You Are in Their Territory

There is one situation when giving an inquisitive shark a thump is not a good idea - when you are in its territory. It can happen with Grey Reef Sharks in certain parts of the Pacific where they can be very territorial, and it could happen with almost any shark, including a dogfish! If a shark arches it’s back and exaggerates it’s movements it is telling you to go away - rather like the signal of a growling dog. If you see this, swim away, otherwise it will suddenly turn to ram and even bite you if you approach, just like what might happen if you approached a snarling dog.

Sharks Attack Because They Look Upon You As Competition

This is now believed to be one of the main reasons for many shark attacks. Sharks chasing a distressed fish will push each other out of the way and may even bite, and it is now believed many attacks are of this type, showing any potential competition that they are the boss! It could also be a spear fisherman that has a caught a fish, and with the fish in distress, a shark nearby will charge in to grab the fish and in some cases charging the spear fisherman and biting them or pushing them out of the way. This is also thought to be the case in some of the Florida cases where people have been swimming close to fisherman and sharks have ’attacked’ as they have gone for the distressed fish on the line.

Regarding Florida there have been a number of cases of smaller sharks attacking children and one argument is that people should not fish from the same beach where people swim, not a ban shark feeding in the Bahamas miles away!. Sharks will go for a fish that is on a hook, chasing it as it is reeled in and biting and pushing away other sharks to get there first. These sharks may back away from any human adults swimming or standing in the water since they are too big, but they may attack smaller children they way the would attack other small sharks that are looked upon as competition. The moral of the story is to separate fishing beaches from swimming beaches.

This is also where it is also important to have relevant guidelines at shark feeds, so that sharks look upon divers as bystanders, not as competition for food.

"Beware of Coconuts!"

Yes, occasionally there are man-eaters out there but they are rare, and so are non-lethal attacks. If you want to put statistics in place, more people in the tropics die from coconuts that fall on their heads then from shark attack! And in general, when it comes to diving or surfing, the most dangerous part is driving a car to get there, so let’s get things into perspective. Yes, sharks can be dangerous, so respect them.

In the following list sharks only just get in the top 10 of dangerous animals - and I am not sure if they should be there at all, especially if the lists considers ants (30 deaths a year?), bees (53 deaths a year, perhaps a lot more) and especially parasites. Roundworm and tapeworm cause about 2,000 deaths a year, snails (schistosomiasis) and assassin bugs (Chagas disease) about 10,000 a year, and Tsetse Fly (sleeping sickness) up to 400,000 a year.  For these parasites, many deaths are from the lack of treatment. The same applies for snake bites and malaria from mosquitoes.

FATALITIES PER YEAR

10 - ‘BEARS’, 5-10 FATALITIES PER YEAR? May be more with Sloth Bear attacks in India.
9 - ‘SHARKS’, c5-10 (25?)? (statistics suggest 3 recorded fatalities in 2014 and 4 in 2015)
8 - ‘JELLYFISH’, c100 (around 10x the fatalities from shark attacks)
7- ELEPHANTS, 100-300. Cape Buffalo may kill a similar number.
6 - ‘HIPPO, 500 to 1,000, some say up to 2,900 (the most dangerous mammal in Africa?)
5 - ‘BIG CATS’, c259 to 800 (100 to 250 lion attacks a year)
4 - ‘CROCODILES’, 1000 to 2,500 (far more than for sharks, 100x more?)
3 - ‘SCORPIONS’, c800 to 5000
2 - ‘SNAKES’, 50,000 to 125,000 - mainly people working in the field and working close to undergrowth.

Number one is the mosquito (due to Malaria) with statistics suggesting anything between 660,000 and 2-3 million deaths per year (more than all others combimed). So stop worrying about sharks if you don’t take malaria tablets when you are advised to!

These statistics are for wild animals and vary according to the statistics checked. For 'big cats' there is a chance a hungry lion will attack if you get too close to one on the African plains. As for a Tiger in the Asian jungle in most parks where there are Tigers you are relatively safe walking along paths. The main danger is going off paths and getting close to a mother with young. Most Tiger attacks are in areas where people and Tigers live in close vicinity; or with old, weak and hungry animals, often outside the best habitats and parks. Leopard attacks appear to be on the increase, especially in India (linked to initially feeding on dog and human carcasses with the lack of vultures at the moment) whilst, in Amazon, attacks by Jaguars are extremely rare.

D 150 Salt water CrocodileFor an individual species the Hippo appears to be the most dangerous mammal, whilst crocodiles are the most dangerous large animals with Nile Crocodiles and Salt-water Crocodiles taking many, and it may be much higher for the former. Deer may also kill 120 per year through car accidents! What is obvious is that it can be very dangerous to be in the open and close to Lions, Cape Buffalo, Elephants and Hippos if you don't know what you are doing, or to be in the water where there are Nile or Salt-water Crocodiles.

But divers often encounter and seek out Bull Sharks and Tiger Sharks, and even encounter Great White Sharks, whilst countless swimmers and surfers have been obvlious when one of the 'deadly three' has swam past very clsoe to them!

Australia saw an increase in unprovoked shark attacks in 2015 with a spate of publicity, but what are the facts? There was an average of 6.5 unprovoked shark attacks in the 90's that have risen to an annual average of 13 recently (NB: provoked attacks are those where the shark was deemed to be provoked, such as diver grabbing a shark, or a fisherman unhooking a shark). In 2015 in Australia there were 33 shark attacks of which two were fatal. Of these, 22 were unprovoked attacks, with one fatality. Of the 22 attacked 18 were surfers, and at least 16 attacks were by Great Whites, including the fatal attack, on a surfer. To put it into context, the annual death toll of divers in Australia currently averages out at 23, 294 people drowned in Australia in 2015, and 1209 deaths due to motor accidents.

As for pets, in the USA alone there are 4 million attacks by dogs per year! About 800,000 require medical attention with around 12 to 20 deaths! Horses also kill around 20 people in the USA alone, through riding accidents. Statistically horse riding has to be one of the most dangerous pastimes out there! If you consider deaths from Rabies, dog kill about 25,000 humans a year. So don’t go on about how dangerous sharks are if you like to stroke dogs or go horse riding! In many ways respecting sharks is like the approach to dogs. Most are OK, but you should alway respect and assess the behaviour and mood of the dog before getting too close, and would be stupid to continue to approach an aggressive snarling dog.

And if you are worried about sharks on your travels, the following statistics will put it into perspective. Humans kill 475,000 other humans on average in a year. And what about the motor car, Worldwide there are 50 million injuries due to motor accidents and 1.2 million deaths. For all of us the most dangerous thing to do is get in a car or to cross the road!  As for taking the dog for a walk and encountering other dogs, before driving to the stables to go horse riding, think of those statistics first!

Help Sharks

Sharks area amazing, but thousands of sharks die due to the horror of shark fining and, sadly, this means the chances of swimming with sharks in many areas of the world has decreased drastically. Did you know that some shark populations may be down by 80%? In places where there is  shark feeding, the sharks are protected and often increasing, the sharks also looking upon the area as a 'refuge' where they can socialise. So help shark conservation by going shark diving. Check out The Shark Watcher’s Handbook by Mark Carwardine and Ken Watterson (BBC books). You can also do your bit by joining the Shark Trust - see www.sharktrust.org or write to the Shark Trust, National Marine Aquarium, Rope Walk, Coxside, Plymouth PL4 0LF.