Sharks! Just mention that word and it may conjure up images of a scene from the movie Jaws. Reports of shark attacks along Florida's East Coast perhaps make us even more likely to have an adverse reaction. That is all perfectly natural, but experts are saying not to panic.
Shark Attack Numbers
First of all, let's look at the number of shark attacks and fatalities in Florida over the last year. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History's 2019 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary, unprovoked shark attacks were at lower than usual with 64 attacks worldwide. As has been the norm for decades, Florida had the most unprovoked attacks worldwide with 21 shark attacks during 2019. That's considerably less than the record high of 37 in the year 2000 but still represents 51 percent of the U.S. total.
Shark attacks tend to correlate with the number of people in the water and people flock to Florida to take advantage of the beaches. In the shark attack summary, Florida's Volusia County had the most shark attacks with 9 attacks representing 43 percent of the Florida total. The other incidents occurred in Brevard County (2 attacks), Duval County (5 attacks) and single attacks at Broward, Martin, Nassau, Palm Beach and St. Johns counties.
In another comparison, there were six lightning fatalities within the state and no shark fatalities. Even bees, wasps, and snakes kill more people each year than sharks.
Shark Habits and History
Sharks have been around for about 400 million years. Perhaps it is the combination of their super senses that has helped them survive such a long time. Their keenest sense is smell, and it is thought two-thirds of their brain is dedicated to that sense. Other senses include vision, hearing, taste, vibration, and electroreception. Electroreception means that they can sense electronics—so be careful bringing cameras into the ocean or it may attract sharks.
In fact, when it comes to the shark's dinner, they normally eat alone but sometimes are attracted to prey when others are feeding. It is then that they'll wildly chomp and bite (even each other) creating what is known as a feeding frenzy.
A shark's sense of sight and vibration have a good bit to do with shark attacks. A sudden splash in the water—as when a diver jumps into deep water — will attract the attention of a shark in the vicinity. A shark will often nearly bite the flipper of a snorkeler that was quietly gliding along without splashing. It is believed the reflection of the snorkeler's flipper is perceived as food. The same is true of beach-goers swimming and splashing in the water. It may be a case of mistaken identity, with the skin being mistaken for a bait fish. Ironically, most sharks are afraid of the bubbles made by divers and seldom will cross above a diver for that reason. However, the Tiger and Great White sharks are not — most likely because their large size makes them fearless.
Reduce Your Risk of Shark Attacks
Risks should always be minimized whenever possible in any activity. George H. Burgess of the International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, suggests tips for reducing your risk of a shark attack.
- Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
- Do not wander too far from shore.
- Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active.
- Do not enter the water if bleeding or if you have an open wound.
- Do not wear shiny jewelry.
- Avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Use extra caution when waters are murky.
- Do not splash excessively.
- Stay away from the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs, which are favorite shark hangouts.
- Do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements and splashing.
- Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and get out of the water if sharks are seen.
The Bottom Line
Always use caution when swimming, snorkeling, or diving. All sharks are dangerous and unpredictable, but the Bull and Tiger sharks are particularly aggressive. If confronted by a shark, do whatever you can to get away—hit its nose, poke its eye, or kick it in the face—whatever it takes. Unfortunately, most people who are attacked do not see the shark before it bites, but remember that the chances of coming into contact with a shark or being bitten are still relatively slim—some say as little as 1 in 11.5 million. In fact, you are more likely to drown first (those numbers are only 1 in 3.5 million).