A 28-year old woman was bitten by a shark on Sunday afternoon as she waded in waist-deep water off the coast of Cocoa Beach, Florida.
She was taken to a nearby hospital with injuries to an ankle and lower leg that went down all the way “to the bone,” but is said to be recovering well. The attack came just ten days after a 10-year-old boy was attacked by a shark while swimming off the western coast of Oahu, Hawaii. The boy, who had been bodyboarding about 50-60 yards off shore, was bitten on the right leg and taken to hospital in serious condition. That attack was the seventh reported shark attack in Hawaii this year, and the third in Oahu last month.
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Between 2005 and 2014, there were 701 shark attacks globally, 68 of which were fatal. So far in 2015, there have been eight fatal shark attacks worldwide — a dramatic increase from last year, which saw just three deaths.
What is causing this perceived increase in attacks? Are sharks actually becoming more aggressive?
“The question is whether the rate of unprovoked attacks is actually increasing or not,” explained Dr Chris Lowe, director of the California State University Long Beach Shark Lab. “That depends on how you look at it. There may be some indication that it is going up in some locations, and in other locations there has been recent studies indicating that it is going down.”
According to Lowe, the number of attacks is proportionate to the increased human activity along the coastlines.
“Quite often, the increase does match, based on the data we have on the number of people going into the water,” he explained.
Interestingly, shark populations, specifically around the U.S., appear to be increasing, says Lowe, who says shark numbers are in recovery after being negatively impacted by overfishing, habitat loss, and reduction of their natural food sources. As far as the world’s overall ecosystem is concerned, this is a good thing.
But there is another important factor that could be impacting current shark numbers around our coastlines — global warming.
Sharks are migratory animals which will leave colder waters for a warmer climate during winter months. They typically return when the water temperatures begin to climb in the spring. But in recent years, especially along the western U.S. coastline, the water temperatures have not been dropping — which causes an intense disruption in shark migratory patterns.
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“We are experiencing a strong El Nino, which is effecting a lot of the animals behaviors because of oceanographic conditions,” says Lowe, who has been tracking shark migrations from Southern California to Mexico, for nine years.
“If the animals that we tagged the last two summers are indications of what all the sharks are doing, none of them left during the winter. So the reason it looks like there are more sharks here is because there is.”
With more sharks and more people in the water, it is no surprise that we are experiencing an increase in shark/human interactions.
“The reality of it is, in most locations, the number of shark-related incidents are really low compared to any other ocean linked risk,” Lowe explains.
“Drowning, rip tides, surfing related injuries. If you compare all those sorts of things and their relative risks, sharks are very, very, low on that list.”
The data suggests that sharks don’t actually like eating people, with over 85% of shark-human interactions ending with just a bite, and not with the person being consumed.
Experts believe that most shark attacks are purely the species protecting their space, much as a dog would bark at or bite an intruder. Rarely are the attacks believed to be a shark hunting for food.
“If a shark feels threatened then they will defend themselves. So maybe, when a person is bitten, it has nothing to do with predation, and more about a shark feeling threatened,” Lowe said.
But without avoiding the water how can you avoid a shark attack? And what do you do if you find yourself in a confrontation with a shark? Yahoo Travel investigated:
1. Swim in a group. Sharks are more likely to attack a lone individual.
2. Avoid the water at night, dawn, and dusk, as this is when sharks are most active. They are also harder to see during these times.
3. Do not enter the water if you are bleeding or have an open wound. Sharks are attracted to blood and can smell it in the water from miles away.
4. Avoid wearing jewelry when swimming. Sharks can mistake the shiny surfaces for fish scales. Same goes for brightly colored and patterned swimwear. Sharks are even believed to be attracted to uneven tan lines as they see contrasting shades more clearly.
5. Avoid swimming near fishermen or fishing boats. These can attract sharks towards the shore in search of an easy meal.
6. Don’t swim in waters known to be frequented by sharks. Always abide by the rules on beach signage, or made by lifeguards or local authorities.
7. Do not take your pets into the water. A dog paddling in the surf is an easy dinner for a shark, and is likely to draw them closer to shore.
8. Avoid swimming in water where there is sewage. Sewage and waste attracts bait fish which can in turn attract sharks to the area. Sewage in the water can also increase following heavy rainfalls, so steer clear of the water following a heavy downpour.
9. Keep splashing to a minimum. To a shark it signifies an animal, and potential easy meal, in distress in the water.
10. Sandbars and steep ocean floor dropoffs are popular hangouts for sharks, so take caution in these areas.
11. Beware around dolphins. They share much of the same food sources as sharks, and therefore the two species are usually spotted in the same areas.
What should you do if you are attacked by a shark?
“Avoid using your bare hands and feet, if at all possible,” suggests the ReedQuest Centre for Shark Research. “Concentrate your blows against the shark’s delicate eyes or gils.”
“Do whatever you can to get away,” advises George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File. “Playing dead does not work. Pound the shark in any way possible. Try to claw at the eyes and gills. I personally would go down fighting.”
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.