Should you be worried about shark attacks? Experts dive in

Several high-profile shark attacks have made headlines this summer.

A woman from Connecticut was bitten in May while on vacation in Turks and Caicos, and a Russian man was killed by a tiger shark in June while swimming off the coast of Egypt.

Closer to home, the Fourth of July holiday week saw several shark encounters. Three people were bitten by sharks in Long Island, New York, numbering five suspected shark attacks over a two-day period on the coastline in New York. None of the encounters resulted in fatal injuries.

While shark bites make for splashy news, the number of shark attacks per year has remained relatively stable.

According to the Florida Museum's International Shark Attack File, there were 41 reported shark bites in the U.S. in 2022. So far, as of July 20, website Tracking Sharks cites that 25 shark bites have been reported in the U.S. this year. spoke to two experts about shark safety tips you can use this summer and all year round. Read on to learn about staying safe at the beach, how worried you should be about shark bites and what to do if you encounter one.

"Don't swim with the bait" and other beach safety tips

Marine conservation biologist Catherine Macdonald emphasizes that sharks almost always try to steer clear of humans. However, there are a few important safety recommendations for beachgoers who want to take extra precautions.

Swim in groups: Macdonald recommends that swimmers stay in large groups and swim during daylight hours. Ensuring that a shark can easily identify you as a human reduces the risk of an interaction.

“Sharks avoid people,” she said.

Avoid swimming near prey: John Chisholm, a shark researcher at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, tells that beachgoers should avoid encroaching on sharks' territory.

Around Long Island, Chisholm explains that many people run afoul of sharks because they mingle too closely with the shark's natural prey.

"People need to be aware that the sharks are close to shore, because that’s usually where the food is," he says.

Chisholm advises that swimmers should avoid getting in the water near large groups of fish or seals, since sharks will likely be hunting close by.

"The number one thing is to avoid swimming with the bait," he says. "Don’t put yourself in that area, because then you’re asking for trouble."

Stick to clear, shallow water: For added safety, both Macdonald and Chisholm recommend that people stay in shallow, clear water. Swimming in murky water makes it more likely that a shark could confuse a human for prey.

Depending on the oceanography of the beach, sharks can swim in as little as three feet of water. Chisholm says that in an area like Cape Cod, which has steep underwater dropoffs near the shore, people should be aware that large sharks like great whites can get much closer than they think.

He added that smaller, thinner sharks like sandbar sharks and sand tiger sharks can also swim close to the beach even on flatter shoals due to their size.

Why do shark bites and attacks happen?

According to Chisholm, the "why" behind shark attacks is the "million dollar question" among shark researchers.

Chisholm compares shark hunting patterns to people at the grocery store. While we can pick up and squeeze a piece of produce to test its quality, sharks can only use their mouths as testers.

"In most cases, they realize right away that oops, I just bit something that's not my target, and they swim away," he says.

The "mistaken identity" hypothesis theorizes that most of the time, sharks only bite humans because they confuse them for more palatable prey.

Additionally, in low visibility water with churning surf, a hand or foot hanging off of a surfboard could be mistaken for a fish, Chisholm says.

"Mistaken identity" bites are rarely fatal. In most cases, Chisholm says, the shark releases the person after realizing that they aren't desirable prey.

However, Chisholm notes that bigger sharks can cause bigger problems. Even a nibble from a great white shark could sever arteries.

"When you get even a test bite from a large shark, they have the dentition to do damage, and we're just soft, pink flesh," he says.

According to Chisholm, shark bites can also occur when a human gets too close to the shark's territory. The shark may lash out and bite to deter humans from coming closer.

Though extremely uncommon, attacks do occur in which a shark continues to attack a human after the first bite. Chisholm names the May shark fatality in Egypt as an example.

Anyone who is bitten by a shark should immediately exit the water and seek medical attention.

What to do if you encounter a shark

Both Macdonald and Chisholm emphasize that actual shark attacks are incredibly rare. However, getting up close and personal with a shark can be a nerve-wracking experience.

If you see a shark in the water, Chisholm recommends smoothly exiting the water without excessive splashing.

Once safely back on the beach, he advises calmly reporting the shark sighting to the appropriate authorities and fellow swimmers. Sometimes, a "shark" turns out to be an ocean sunfish or a dolphin.

“Always err on the side of caution,” he says.

If you do encounter a shark up close, Macdonald recommends staying calm and either moving away slowly or steering the shark away.

"If you have one actually approach you so closely that you need to move it away from you, take the very front of its snout and just kind of gently redirect it, is what I would do if I found myself in that situation," Macdonald says.

"But again, the probability that it will approach you that closely is very, very low," she adds.

In the unlikely event that the shark actually bites you, Chisholm recommends hitting the shark in soft areas like the eyes, nose and gills to get it to let go.

How worried should beachgoers be?

Macdonald says shark attacks are one of the lowest probability events to worry about at the beach.

“We lose many, many more people every year to riptides than to interactions with sharks,” she says.

She notes that sharks and humans interact far more often than we realize, and bites are an abnormal occurrence.

“There’s just such a vastly large number of times that humans and sharks encounter each other in the water, often without humans even knowing it, in which nothing at all happens,” Macdonald says. “The shark detects the person and goes about its day.”

She points out that the ocean is a wild habitat, and proper precautions should always be taken. However, sharks themselves are far from the biggest danger that humans encounter in the ocean. According to the National Weather Service, an average of 71 people die each year in the U.S. due to rip current drownings.

Chisholm recommends that beachgoers do their research before jumping in.

"The chances of getting bitten are very low, but you still need to be prepared every time you go to the beach," he says.

He cites the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy's Sharktivity app, which tracks white shark sightings, as a good resource for monitoring shark activity. Additionally, Chisholm reminds beachgoers to check the beach for signs about shark sightings.

“You can still have fun at the beach, and coexist with the sharks," he says.

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