From Spielberg to the Discovery Channel, sharks have captured the world’s imagination. The media portrays them as toothy terrors that emerge from the deep to devour innocent swimmers. But is that real or just Hollywood?
With the premiere of Shark Week 2019 on July 28, we wanted to sink our teeth into the facts and statistics surrounding shark attacks and the likelihood of encountering a shark on your beach vacation. Because of overfishing, the populations of large shark species have declined over 90%.1 The truth is, we’re more of a threat to sharks than they are to us.
We dove into the data to learn about the history of shark attacks in the US since 2000.
Despite what you see in the movies and on TV, shark attacks are relatively rare. And when they do occur, most victims are surfing or swimming before the attack. In 2019 so far, there have been two fatal attacks in the US: a 65-year-old swimmer in Hawaii and a 26-year-old boogie boarder in Massachusetts.
The latter may sound unusual, but shark attacks have increased in the Northeast in recent years due to warming ocean temperatures, leading to more dangers in states like the Carolinas, Massachusetts, and New York.
Our Fishy Findings
Florida and Hawaii hold the top spots for most shark attacks out of any other coastal states.
Out of the 91 million recreational swimmers in the US, there are only about 44 attacked by sharks each year.
There have been only 17 fatal shark attacks in the last 20 years in the US, eight in the past decade and nine the decade before.
Even with growing coastal populations, the number of nonfatal shark attacks has remained about the same between the 2000s and 2010s. From 2000–2009 there were 429 nonfatal attacks, and from 2010–2019 there were 436.
On a global average, only six people die from shark attacks each year.
There were no shark-related fatalities in the US in 2017.
Men are more likely to fall victim to shark attacks perhaps because they participate in activities like surfing, diving, and long-distance swimming more often than women. Since 2000, Florida has consistently had more shark attacks than any other state. Of the 487 attacks in Florida during the past 20 years, only three have been fatal. Hawaii comes in second with a total of 117 shark attacks but more fatalities. Since 2010, Northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Maine have seen an increase in attacks.
What Is the Likelihood of a Shark Attack?
Shark attacks are traumatic but, thankfully, rare. Because of sensational headlines and overblown reports, it’s easy to worry about swimming in the ocean. Fortunately, your chances of being attacked by a shark or even encountering one are slim. You’re more likely to die from the flu or excessive cold than a shark.3
For most people, the risk of being attacked by a shark is 1:738 million. If you’re a surfer, it’s 1:17 million, and it’s 1:136 million if you’re a scuba diver. Overall, shark attacks shouldn’t concern average Americans.
Shark Safety Tips
- Hopefully, you’ll never encounter a wild shark in the open water, but keep these tips in mind.
- Swim together: Most sharks attack individuals because they mistake humans for other creatures like seals.
- Keep the shore in sight: Straying too far from shore will leave you
isolated from help and farther into shark territory.
- Don’t swim at night: Sharks are most active at night and hard to see in the dark.
- Don’t ignore shark warnings: It’s common sense, but don’t enter the water during a shark watch. Signs posted on the beach indicate any dangers, so be sure to stay vigilant.
- Watch for sandbars and ocean drop-offs: These spots tend to be rich in wildlife perfect for shark snacks. Be extra careful in these areas.
- Don’t swim if you’re bleeding: If you’re bleeding from a wound, don’t go in the water—sharks are attracted to blood.
- Watch for sea life: Sharks eat fish and other aquatic critters, so be careful in areas like reefs and sandbars.
- If you do run into a shark, keep your cool and remember these tips.
- Exercise common sense: Be alert when swimming in the ocean. You are entering the shark’s territory, so respect the shark and its natural habitat.
- Maintain eye contact: Sharks hunt by ambushing their prey. If you see a shark circling you, be sure to watch it carefully to show it’s lost the
element of surprise.
- Don’t splash around: If you encounter a shark, don’t panic. Splashing and thrashing in the water will only entice it. Sharks have been known to give “exploratory bites” when they encounter something new (like humans). The best thing to do is to lose the shark’s interest.
- Don’t swim at river mouths and estuaries: These areas are a favorite hangout of bull sharks. The mix of salt and fresh water create a fertile environment for animals that are sharks’ preferred prey.
SafeWise analyzed data from all shark attacks, both fatal and nonfatal, reported to Global Shark Attack File over the last two decades (2000–2019). To show where each attack took place, we mapped our findings. We included only unprovoked shark attacks on our map—meaning the victim was not actively engaging with the shark when the attack occurred.
The University of Miami, “Assessing the Cascading Ecosystem Impacts of Marine Predator Declines as a Result of Overfishing.”
Daily Beast, “Sharks Are Creeping into the Northeast Because of Climate Change”
Florida Museum, “Annual Risk fo Death During One’s Lifetime”
CNN Travel, “How to Survive a Shark Attack”