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1 in 4 Million: That's Your Chances of Fatal Shark Attack

Despite recent (scary) news, shark bites are extremely rare for swimmers and anglers.

1 in 4 Million: That's Your Chances of Fatal Shark Attack

Large adult blacktip shark roam near white sand beach. (Shutterstock image)

As I stood on the deck of a skiff with a fly rod in my hand a few years ago, the sight of several black-tipped sharks buzzing about the craft made me keenly aware again of a fact that was obvious.

And the truth is that every single time you fish in saltwater, or wade into the surf off a popular beach along the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf Coast, you’re stepping into another world where you are no longer the apex predator.

That truth was driven home in horrific fashion a few days ago when beachgoers and saltwater anglers around the globe were rocked when video surfaced of a horrific shark attack fatality in Egypt's Red Sea. Too gruesome and graphic to watch, the video still went viral worldwide in a matter of hours.

As the peaks of the 2023 summer fishing and swimming seasons arrive coast to coast, that news may not settle well for millions of Americans headed for the salt in the next several weeks. There are other reports.

In the Atlantic, a veteran scuba diver from the Midwest had a leg amputated after a shark attack near Taino Beach in the Bahamas on June 7.  The victim, 73-year-old Heidi Ernst of Iowa--an experienced scuba diver with more than 500 dives under her belt—was reportedly saved by quick-thinking and prompt first-aid administered by other divers on the boat. But the damage and infection was too severe, and doctors had to remove her leg after she was air-lifted from a local Bahamian hospital to a U.S. trauma facility. Friends of Ernst have set up a Go Fund Me fundraiser to help with her medical expenses.

Out in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, a Netflix crew filming a Laysan albatross chick for the "Our Planet II" documentary series nearly fell victim to tiger sharks that were eager to feed. As the crew filmed the fledgling chicks, which are said to be particularly vulnerable early in life to tiger sharks, which have reportedly travelled as far as 2,000 miles to feed on the young birds, the camera crew became a part of the day's story while they filmed from an inflatable boat just off the shoreline of their filming location:

  • "This 'v' of water came streaming towards us and this tiger shark leapt at the boat and bit huge holes in it," said producer and director Toby Nowlan in the Radio Times report. "The whole boat exploded. We were trying to get it away and it wasn’t having any of it. It was horrific. That was the second shark that day to attack us."

Fortunately, the crew was able to safely make it back to shore only a few hundred feet away.

That wasn’t the case earlier in the year for a swimmer in New Caledonia who was fatally attacked in February by a tiger shark, and in January when horrific headlines told the tragic tale of a free-diving commercial angler in Sonora, Mexico, who had his head torn from his body in an underwater attack by a 15-foot great white shark.

Obviously, the uptick in shark news—the incidents mentioned above along with at least four incidents in Florida in recent months (one involving a swimmer, another a spearfisherman, and two others involving surfers) and a Hawaiian incident last month where a kayak angler’s paddle craft was attacked off the coast of Oahu—and it’s completely understandable if there’s a little apprehension when surveying a saltwater location these days.

Even so, it’s important to remember that real-life shark-bite incidents are rare, according to biologists and shark experts. In fact, according to the ABC News report about the kayaker in Hawaii, the odds of a shark bite encounter are extremely low and "The likelihood of a fatal shark attack is 1 in 4,332,817."

It’s worth noting that despite headlines suggesting otherwise, shark-bite incidents were actually below normal two of the last three years according to statistics from the International Shark Attack File maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History. The FMNH said that it investigated 108 alleged shark-human interactions worldwide in 2022, confirming "57 unprovoked shark bites on humans and 32 provoked bites."

The shark-bite figure of 52 incidents during the pandemic year of 2020 was the lowest in more than a decade, according to The Guardian. Attacks rebounded somewhat in 2021 when some semblance of normal life resumed in most parts of the world, with a total of 73 unprovoked shark bites happening along with 11 fatalities. Then in 2022, shark-bite incidents and fatality numbers went down again.

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"The 2022 worldwide total of 57 confirmed unprovoked cases is lower than the most recent five-year (2017-2021) average of 70 incidents annually," the FMNH report noted. "There were nine shark-related fatalities this year (2022), five of which are assigned as unprovoked. This number is in line with the five-year annual global average of six unprovoked fatalities per year."

The U.S., with its vast saltwater shorelines, once again had the most unprovoked shark bites in 2022 according to the museum administered by the University of Florida. In U.S. waters, there were 41 such unprovoked shark-bite incidents last year and one shark-bite fatality. While lower than the 47 U.S. incidents from the previous year, last year's U.S. shark bite figure accounted for 72 percent of the worldwide total, largely due to length of the U.S. coastline, which measures 95,471 miles according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Florida led the way in the U.S. with 16 shark-bite incidents in 2022, followed by New York's eight such incidents. Hawaii had five shark bites (including the year’s lone U.S. fatality) while four such incidents occurred in California and South Carolina. North Carolina had two shark-bite incidents in 2022 while Alabama and Texas each had one.

While your chances of being attacked by a shark is ultra low, it still makes sense to be prepared—not fearful—and push those odds even lower. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “It is extremely unlikely for a person to be bitten by a shark in Florida waters, and bites are rarely life-threatening. … If you are thinking of going swimming on an ocean beach, bay or inland waters, and if you are concerned about sharks, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your chances of being bitten."

First, FWC says to always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to bite a solitary individual. Next, don’t wander too far from shore, since this isolates an individual and places him or her far away from potential assistance. Also, avoid being in the water during low-light hours when sharks are most active in the water, and don’t go in the water if bleeding. The FWC recommends not wearing shiny jewelry, which can resemble fish scales to a shark. Other tips:

  • Avoid waters with known discharges or sewage and waters used for any type of fishing-especially if there are signs of baitfishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds, which frequently feed on baitfishes, are good indicators of such activity.
  • While there are myths and anecdotes about dolphins saving humans from shark bites, the presence of dolphins does not indicate the absence of sharks-both often eat the same foods.
  • Use extra caution when waters are murky.
  • Remember that sharks see contrast particularly well. Uneven tans and bright colored clothing may draw a shark's attention.
  • Refrain from excess splashing, as this may draw a shark's attention.
  • Do not allow pets in the water: their erratic movements may draw a shark’s attention.
  • Be careful when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs-these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
  • Swim only in areas tended by lifeguards.
  • Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present, and get out of the water if sharks are sighted.
  • And finally, never harass a shark.

Get out and safely and responsibly enjoy the saltwater, but also do what you can to keep the finned predators away and the risk of a shark encounter even lower than it already is.




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