You may find yourself wishing for a bigger boat, but you likely won’t need better odds when it comes to sharks.
Shark attacks are one of the most-feared natural dangers to man, even though you’re more likely to die of the flu, a dog (or bee, wasp, snake, bear or alligator) attack, falling down, fireworks, drowning and many other less-feared risks.
You are more likely to die of a lightning strike than a shark attack in the United States.
You’re also more likely to live to be 100, be born with extra fingers or toes, make a hole-in-one, be hit by a comet or asteroid or be injured by a toilet than be attacked by a shark, according to the scientists behind The Fisheries Blog.
The Carolinas are two of the top 5 states for most shark attacks in the U.S. But the statistics show that even in those states, the chance of being attacked is low.
In North Carolina from 2007-16, there were 33 shark attacks, ranking the state No. 4 (tied with California) for most attacks in the country, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. The ISAF is run by Gavin Naylor and a small team of researchers. George Burgess previously directed the ISAF.
In South Carolina, during the same time, there were 51 attacks, ranking the state No. 3 behind Hawaii and Florida.
In 58 years, one person in North Carolina is known to have been killed in a shark attack, despite millions of beachgoers visiting the coast annually.
South Carolina has not had a single fatal shark attack in 58 years.
North Carolina has averaged about two to three shark attacks per year for the past 14 years and has not had a fatal attack since 2001, according to the ISAF.
Florida had the most shark attacks from 2007-16, with 244. During that time, one of the recorded attacks resulted in a death.
Florida averaged about 24 attacks per year during that 10-year period.
The entire U.S. has averaged about 41 attacks per year since 2001, according to the ISAF.
“Shark attack is a potential danger that must be acknowledged by anyone that frequents marine waters, but it should be kept in perspective,” according to the ISAF.
You are more likely to die of a long list of diseases, accidents and other causes — including the flu, falling down or fireworks — than you are to die of a shark attack.
You have a far greater chance of drowning, according to the ISAF than dying by shark attack — about 132 times more likely.
From 2001-13, there were 364 deaths because of dog attacks, according to the National Canine Research Foundation. During the same period, 11 people died of shark attacks.
You have a 1 in more than 3.7 million chance of dying from a shark attack over your lifetime, according to data from the National Safety Council and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 1959-2010, 193 people in North Carolina died from lightning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One person died from a shark attack in that time. You are 30 times more likely to die from a lightning strike in the U.S. than from a shark attack.
From 2004-13, 361 people nationwide died because of rip currents and more than 341,000 had to be rescued. During that same time, 8 people died of shark attacks.
More people, more attacks
The number of people entering the water every year influences the number of shark interactions. The University of Florida has found a correlation between the population increasing and more shark attacks around the world.
There is a nearly identical increase in beach attendance, drowning rescues and shark attacks on U.S. beaches from 1994-2000.
There is no indication that there is any change in the per capita rate of attack, though.
Most shark attacks occur in water near shore, typically inshore of a sandbar, or between sandbars where sharks feed and can become trapped at low tide, according to the ISAF.
Areas with steep drop-offs also are more likely shark attack sites, since sharks tend to congregate there because their food congregates there, too.
Types of attacks
There are three major types of unprovoked shark attacks, according to the ISAF.
By far the most common are “hit-and-run” attacks which usually occur in the surf zone with swimmers and surfers.
The person usually doesn’t see the shark, and the shark usually doesn’t return after inflicting a single bite or slack wound.
In most instances, these are probably cases of mistaken identity that occur when there is poor water visibility, or a harsh physical environment such as breaking surf and strong current conditions.
“A feeding shark in this habitat must make quick decisions and rapid movements to capture its traditional food items,” according to the ISAF.
Hit-and-run attacks are usually limited to small cuts, often on the leg below the knee, and are seldom life-threatening.
The other two types of unprovoked attacks — “bump-and-bite” and “sneak” attacks — are far less common but result in greater injuries and most deaths.
These attacks usually involve divers or swimmers in somewhat deeper waters, but can happen near shore in the shallows in some parts of the world.
“Bump-and-bite” attacks are typically characterized by a shark circling and bumping the person before the actual attack. “Sneak” attacks differ because the shark strikes without warning.
In both of these types of attacks and unlike the “hit-and-run” attacks, repeat attacks by the shark are not uncommon. Multiple or sustained bites are typical of these attacks. Injuries are usually severe.
Sharks had not been a big priority for research in North Carolina compared to other states, especially given the wealth of sharks in area waters, according to Charles Bangley, a post-doctoral researcher at East Carolina University in the coastal resources management program.
Bangley studies sharks and their habitats. Part of his research has been spent interviewing fishermen.
“One of them called North Carolina ‘the vortex,’” he said. “The state sits at the transition zone between tropical waters to the south and temperate waters to the north. So you get just about everything that could possibly show up on the east coast of the U.S.”
There are about 50 species of shark that frequent North Carolina waters, according to the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
How to avoid sharks
Not going into the ocean is the most certain way to avoid sharks, but risks can be minimized if you do.
The International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida recommends:
- Stay in a group — sharks are more likely to attack individuals.
- Don’t wander far from shore, where you’ll be isolated and far from help.
- Avoid being in the water in the dark or twilight hours when sharks are more active.
- Don’t get in the water if you’re bleeding.
- Don’t wear shiny jewelry — it resembles the sheen of fish scales.
- Avoid water (such as under piers) where there might be bait or cast-off bits of fish. If you see diving seabirds, that’s a good indicator to avoid the area.
- See dolphins? That doesn’t mean sharks aren’t around. Both often eat the same food.
- Use caution when waters are murky.
- Avoid bright-colored clothing and wear water-proof shoes. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Avoid areas between sandbars or near steep drop-offs — favorite hangouts for larger sharks and their food.
- Cut down on splashing. Researchers found sharks often mistake erratic splashing and kicking for injured prey.
- Don’t go in the water if shark warnings are posted: If a shark has been sighted, don’t enter the water until further notice.
If you are attacked, hit the shark on the nose (ideally with an inanimate object). This can sometimes curtail an attack. If not, repeated blows to the snout are recommended by the ISAF. If the shark actually bites, experts recommend clawing at its eyes and gill openings, two sensitive areas, according to the ISAF.