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When Sharks Attack: What You Need to Know

July 31, 2014

When Sharks Attack: What You Need to Know

July 31, 2014

Photo courtesy of Christian Fairbourne

Christian Fairbourne thought he was in for a fun afternoon of body surfing when he waded into the Atlantic off Isle of Palms, S.C., during a family vacation earlier this month. The college student ended up getting attacked by a shark instead. The shark’s teeth punctured his fingers and ripped flesh from his right forearm. Fairbourne was able to swim back to shore where a fellow beachgoer ran over to give him a towel to stop the bleeding. The gash required 11 stitches and Fairbourne expects the teeth marks on his arm will be a permanent reminder of what happened. But his close encounter with a shark has not stopped the New Jersey resident from going back in the water.

“What are the chances of being bit again?” he says.

There were 47 shark attacks in the U.S. last year, down from 53 in 2012, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. Only one of the attacks was fatal. Florida accounted for the highest number of attacks in 2013 (23), followed by Hawaii (13) and South Carolina (6). California, Oregon, North Carolina, Texas and Alabama each recorded one attack.

“Shark attacks are a summer phenomenon,” George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida, told Yahoo Shine. “Sharks move further north as the water heats up.”

Contrary to popular belief (and folklore), Great White sharks are not patrolling the waters for unsuspecting surfers, swimmers, and snorkelers.

“It’s very uncommon for Great White sharks to attack,” noted Burgess, “and an attack [by a Great White] on the East Coast is highly unusual.”

There have been numerous sightings of Great White sharks off the coast of Cape Cod this summer due to the thriving gray seal population, which biologists attribute to successful conservation efforts. Shark enthusiasts are traveling to Cape Cod communities such as Chatham to catch a glimpse of these powerful predators and businesses are seeing a boom as locals and tourists snatch up shark memorabilia. Before 2004, there were less than two shark sightings each year in Cape Cod. In recent years there have been more than 20 sightings per year. A study released in June by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration stated that the number of Great White sharks is surging after decades of decline. Great White sharks are primarily found between Massachusetts and New Jersey during the summer and off the Florida coast during winter. They are broadly located along the East Coast during spring and fall, according to NOAA. 

Bull, blacktip, and tiger sharks are chiefly responsible for hit-and-run attacks in the ocean. Sharks confuse swimmers for larger prey – like seals – and will quickly release their jaws from that ankle, arm or torso after they realize their mistake.

“Sharks do not consider us a normal part of their diet,” explained Burgess. “Usually when a shark sees a human it goes the other way.”

There are, of course, circumstances when sharks are determined to eat – and humans have to be prepared in this worst-case scenario.

“If a shark expresses interest in you, be as aggressive as you can,” advised Burgess. “Sharks respect power and might.”

A bop to the tip of the shark’s snout will usually give swimmers enough time to make it safely back to land. (But remember – a missed swing could land your hand directly in the shark’s mouth). If the shark won’t leave, swimmers have to prepare for stage 2: hitting the shark’s most sensitive areas – its eyes and gills.

“Don’t go down without a fight,” added Burgess. “Fight back as hard as you can.”

Sharks may be the most fierce (and feared) creatures in the sea, but Burgess points out that they are responsible for an average of just five deaths per year worldwide. The shark population has been drastically shrinking from overfishing and an estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year. As the global population increases, sharks and humans will inevitably meet more frequently than not.

“Every time we enter the sea we should be aware of its dangers,” said Burgess. “It’s a foreign environment…a wild world.”