Posted On 04 Jul 2019
This Fourth of July, it’s safe to go in the water.
Despite a recent handful of shark attacks and sightings in the Atlantic Ocean, experts say 2019 is shaping up to be an average year in terms of encounters. The experts also said that the global average of shark attacks is trending downward.
“You’re more likely to die taking a selfie than being bitten by a shark,” said Tyler Bowling, manager of the Florida Program for Shark Research. “The odds are crazy.”
In June, Jonathan Hernandez, a professional boat captain and fisherman from Florida, was bitten by a shark while spearfishing in the Bahamas. Just days before, Jordan Lindsey, 21, died after being attacked by a shark while snorkeling with her family in the Bahamas.
Additionally, three people in North Carolina were bitten by sharks in June. An 8-year-old boy was bitten while swimming off Bald Head Island. North Carolina teenager Paige Winter lost her leg and several fingers when she was attacked while swimming in Fort Macon, and Austin Reed, 19, is recovering from a shark bite to his foot when he was surfing at the state’s Ocean Isle Beach.
The summer months, when more people are visiting beaches and swimming in the water, can lead to more encounters because humans are entering shark territory, experts said.
“If there are more people in the water, there are more encounters,” Mike Heithaus, a marine biologist at Florida International University, said. “They are big predators and we need to respect them, but in most areas of the world, shark populations are down.”
Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, said the global average for the last decade was 85 unprovoked shark attacks per year, but said in 2018 attacks were down to a global average of 66 unprovoked attacks.
“It’s really quite straightforward,” Naylor said. “Animals bump into people by chance. If there are no people in the water and lots of sharks, the probability of an attack is zero. If there’s lots of people and no sharks, it’s zero.”
Hannah Medd, founder of the American Shark Conservancy, said that the downward trend for shark bites and deaths is due to better public awareness, but added that higher reporting of shark attacks is likely due to information being more widely available rather than an actual increase in attacks.
“It reflects more of our day and age of information-sharing than actual numbers increasing,” Medd said.
When a shark does bite a human, that shark has mistaken a part of the human for a smaller fish.
“They see a flash of movement and they react,” Bowling said. “They’re hunters. It’s a mistake if they bite and then they realize, ‘I bit something huge,’ and they freak out and swim off. They’re not after people.”
For those who are still fearful of sharks this summer, the experts say the best thing you can do is to go swimming in a group, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, refrain from long periods of splashing, which can sound like struggling fish to sharks, and keep away from shiny jewelry when in the water, which can look like fish to a shark.
Bowling added that sharks in shallow water are typically after small, shiny fish — usually referred to as bait fish — and to leave the area if you notice those fish nearby.
Experts said having sharks in the ocean maintains healthy populations of fish and an ocean that benefits humans as much as sea life. Additionally, experts said that the thing people should be more fearful of this summer is riptide currents, which can be lethal.
“It’s scarier to see the fin than a rip current, but [a rip current] can cause much more damage,” Medd said.