Shark Attack or Shark Bite

Medical Authors: Frederick Hecht, MD, FAAP, FACMG, and Cynde Lee, BS, MEd
Medical Editor: Benjamin C Wedro, MD, FAAEM

According to the International Shark Attack File, "The number of shark attacks overall increased from 63 in 2006 to 71 in 2007." Their theory as to the increase in attacks is the increase in people entering the water. As a society, people are generally more active at the beach now; it's no longer just a place to get a tan. The beach enthusiast today is active; surfing, body surfing, boogie boarding, swimming, and snorkeling.

Most shark attacks are not feeding events. Sharks generally bite or attack people by mistake, thinking they are prey.

To decrease the chance of becoming a victim of a shark attack, observe the following rules:

  1. Always swim in a group. Sharks most often attack lone individuals.

  2. Don't wander too far from shore. Doing so isolates you and places you away from assistance.

  3. Avoid the water at night, dawn, or dusk. Many sharks are most active at these times and are better able to find you than you are to see them.

  4. Don't enter the water if bleeding. Sharks can smell and taste blood, and trace it back to its source.

  5. Don't wear shiny jewelry. The reflected light looks like shining fish scales.

  6. Don't go into waters containing sewage. Sewage attracts bait fishes, which in turn attract sharks.

  7. Avoid waters being fished and those with lots of bait fish or chum. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such activities.

  8. Don't enter the water if sharks are present. Leave immediately if sharks are seen.

  9. Avoid an uneven tan and brightly colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well, so use extra caution when waters are cloudy.

  10. Don't splash a lot. Also, keep pets out of the water. Erratic movements can attract sharks. The shark interprets the splashing as a flailing or injured prey.

  11. Use care near sandbars or steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.

  12. Don't relax just because porpoises are nearby. Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks. Both often eat the same foods.

  13. Don't try to touch a shark if you see one!

  14. If attacked by a shark, the general rule is "Do whatever it takes to get away!"

Often, provoked attacks are caused by humans touching sharks. This involves unhooking sharks or removing them from fishing nets. 

Unprovoked attacks happen when sharks make the first contact. This can take three forms:

  1. Hit-and-run attacks 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.

  2. Sneak attacks take place in deeper waters. The victim doesn't see the shark before the attack. The result can be serious injury or death, especially if the shark continues to attack.

  3. Bump-and-bite attacks happen when the shark circles and actually bumps the victim with its head or body before biting. As in the sneak attack, the shark may attack repeatedly and cause serious injury or death.

References: International Shark Attack File. University of Florida, "Human deaths from shark attacks hit 20-year low last year," February 12, 2008

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