But even as encounters with sharks make headlines this summer, the risk of being attacked by the often misunderstood creatures remains low, and plenty of other phenomena are far more dangerous.
“Your chances of being bitten are kind of like your chances of winning the Powerball,” said Marine Biology Professor Christopher Lowe, who is director of the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach.
In other words: It’s not likely to happen.
Things more likely than a shark to kill or injure you
“You have a much bigger risk driving to the beach, or even getting caught in a rip current than you ever would from being bitten by a shark,” Lowe said.
So before you swear off going into the water on your next beach trip, here’s what to know:
- In Florida, where the majority of US shark attacks happen, people were nearly 21 times more likely to die in a tornado (125 deaths) than a shark bite (six deaths) between 1985 and 2010.
- Residents of Florida and five other states with alligators were also more likely to die of a bite from the reptile (18 deaths) than a shark bite (nine).
- There were 15,011 US bicycle fatalities compared to 14 shark fatalities between 1990 and 2009, which means Americans were over a thousand times more likely to die in a biking accident than a shark attack.
- Lightning strikes killed nearly 76 times more people (1,970 deaths) than sharks (26) did between 1959 and 2010 in the Coastal US.
- Since 2004, rip currents were responsible for 45 times more deaths than sharks were.
- Dogs killed more than five times the number of people (349) than did sharks (65) in the US between 2009 and 2018.
- Inanimate objects have even killed more people than sharks have. In 1996, toilets injured 43,687 people, ladders injured 138,894 people, and 198,849 people were hurt by nails, screws, tacks, and bolts. In comparison, there were only 13 shark injuries and deaths during the same year.
- Between 2000 and 2007, there were 441 hunting fatalities, compared to seven shark bite deaths in the US and Canada.
These numbers aren’t meant to incite fear at the sight of dogs, toilets or ladders, but are instead meant to demonstrate just how uncommon 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 was an increase in attacks in 2021, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The numbers are on par with the five-year international average of 72 attacks annually, but represents an increase from the 52 attacks reported in 2020, when Americans hunkered down at home amid COVID-19 restrictions.
It is common to see annual fluctuations in shark-human interactions, and despite a spike in fatalities in 2021, long-term trends show the number of annual shark bite deaths are decreasing, according to the Shark Attack File.
The US leads the world in the annual number of documented shark bites, with a total of 47 reported in 2021. Most of those attacks were in Florida, according to data compiled by the museum. Surfers and boarders made up more than half of reported shark bite victims.
Lowe said the increase can be attributed to climate change and rising temperatures driving more people to the beach just as shark populations are recovering and possibly swimming closer to shore to feed.
“The country is warmer than it’s ever been. And that’s going to drive more people to the water than ever before, which just simply increases your probability of somebody getting accidentally bit,” the professor explained.
Still, when taking into account just how many people are going into the water, the probability of being attacked by a shark is very low.
We’re not on their menu
Researchers don’t really know for sure why sharks sometimes bite people. It’s possible they do it because they feel threatened and are just trying to defend themselves, Lowe said.
“The number one thing people have to remember is that it is the shark’s home, and we’re guests in their home, and quite often, we’re not good guests,” the professor added.
It’s also possible sharks sometimes mistake swimmers and surfers for food. Sharks could see a hand or a 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 sea turtle.
Some attacks are “cases of mistaken identity,” occurring under conditions of poor water visibility, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“People are bitten but rarely consumed, and that tells us that we are not on the shark’s menu,” Lowe said.
Sharks just don’t care about us
Lowe and his team at Shark Lab have been using drones to study how sharks behave around humans along the California coast.
“After two years of looking at hundreds of hours of footage, basically, our conclusion is that sharks ignore people,” Lowe said.
Drone video from Shark Lab shows sharks peacefully swimming near unsuspecting paddleboarders, at times close enough for the humans to lean down and touch them.
“People have been taught to fear sharks, thinking that if the shark’s nearby it’s going to bite, and we know that is not true,” Lowe said.
Still, shark attacks can happen on rare occasions, so it is good to remember if you ever encounter a one, turn towards it, so it knows you can see it, and slowly back away.
“The ocean is a wild place. It’s not Disneyland, your safety is not guaranteed,” Lowe said.