Feature Archive

Are Shark Attacks on the Rise?

In recent years, it seems shark attacks have been making headlines more than ever. Are the oceans getting more dangerous?

By Michael Smith
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Despite what seems to be an increase in the number of shark attacks on American swimmers, experts continue to reassure the public that they are rare events. But vacationers and the feared ocean predator continue to cross paths.

Every year, we hear about someone who has been attacked by a shark. And in recent years, it seems shark attacks have been making headlines more than ever. Does this mean that the oceans are getting more dangerous?

In 2001, sharks attacked three swimmers over Labor Day weekend in Virginia and North Carolina, killing two and critically injuring the third. In both fatalities, the victims died after massive blood loss. It's been decades since sharks caused similar tragedies in the two Atlantic states. Earlier that year, a bull shark ripped the arm off of 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast in Florida. His limb was recovered and reattached.

But on the heels of this apparent slew of shark attacks, researchers reported that shark bites in North America fell in 2003, continuing a three-year trend.

There were 55 unprovoked shark attacks around the world in 2003. That was down from 63 in 2002 and down from 68 in 2001. The record was set in 2000, when there were 79 shark attacks.

And while shark attacks are thankfully rare, experts offer some tips on how to keep it that way.

Shark attacks really don't happen very often. Your chances of being attacked by a shark in the U.S. are about 15 times less than your chance of being struck by lightning, Erich K. Ritter, PhD, senior scientist with the Global Shark Attack File in Princeton, N.J., tells WebMD.

Ritter specializes in shark-human interactions and has participated in more than 4,000 staged encounters with sharks, studying how they behave.

"Florida is the world capital of shark attacks," he tells WebMD. In 2000, nearly half of the shark attacks in the U.S. occurred in Florida, Ritter says.

The greatest number of recorded incidents has involved white sharks, followed by bull, tiger, and, in Florida, the blacktip shark.

But Ritter prefers to talk about shark "accidents" -- not attacks. Emergency physician Richard Nateman, MD, agrees.

"Humans are not really what [sharks] want. When they get a human, that's a mistake," he tells WebMD. They do want fish, so the best strategy for avoiding a shark attack is not looking like a fish, he explains.

Sharks usually won't attack someone who's standing or in a vertical position. "They want to attack horizontal things because they know fish are horizontal," he says. Nateman is CEO of South Florida Emergency Physicians at Baptist Hospital in Miami and has seen about a dozen shark victims during his years at the hospital.

Even though the risk of attack is low, you may still want to take steps to further limit that risk. Nateman and Ritter offer the following tips:

  • Swim where lifeguards can see you.

  • Swim where other people are around.

  • Know how to do CPR -- that's a good idea for many reasons.

  • Avoid swimming during dusk and dawn. This is when sharks have the best vision and are looking for food.

  • Avoid murky waters, harbor entrances, channels, and steep drop-offs. "Murky water is attractive to sharks because it has more nutrients," Ritter explains. "Steep drop-offs or anything that increases the current has more available food ... so that brings in more sharks."

If you do encounter a shark, what should you do?

  • Stay calm. "Sharks ... can sense your speeded-up heart rate," says Ritter.

  • If the shark has seen you, never ever swim away from it. Stay still.

  • Even if they bump into you, do not move. That's how they check you out.

  • Stay vertical.

  • Don't struggle and splash. You don't want to look like a struggling fish.

  • If a group of people see a shark close by, they shouldn't huddle together. Instead, try to stay at least a body length away from the next person.

Published July 6, 2004.