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Shark attacks are incredibly rare. But if you do encounter a shark, here's what to do

In this Sept. 5, 2019 photo, a shark warning sign is seen at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Mass.
Susan Haigh
In this Sept. 5, 2019 photo, a shark warning sign is seen at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Mass.

At least two people were bitten by sharks in Florida this week, including a 14-year-old boy who accidentally dove into one of the animals during a lifeguard training camp drill.

Shark attacks over the July Fourth weekend injured four beachgoers in Florida and Texas.

And late last month, the actor and professional surfer Tamayo Perry, 49, died after being attacked by a shark off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii.

Stories of violent encounters between sharks and swimmers can frighten the recreating public, leading to beach closures and conjuring up images of films like Jaws.

READ MORE: Shark teeth fossils are hard to find in South Florida — but not impossible

But shark experts say the risk of an attack is exceedingly low.

"It's pretty common for people to encounter sharks. It's very uncommon for them to know about it," says Catherine Macdonald, director of the Shark Research & Conservation Program at the University of Miami.

Sharks inhabit the whole ocean, Macdonald says, and they may swim into shallow waters near the coastline to hunt for fish or avoid larger sharks. Most of the time, when sharks come across people, they just swim away.

Humans aren't part of a shark's diet, which for most species consists primarily of smaller fish or invertebrates. If they attack people, it's likely because they are confused or curious, according to the National Ocean Service.

So when an attack does occur, it's unusual. "Relative to the number of people who enjoy recreation in our oceans, shark bites are incredibly rare," Macdonald says.

According to a global tally of shark attacks called the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were 69 unprovoked bites in 2023. That's slightly higher than the five-year average of 63 shark attacks.

Macdonald says there could be a few factors contributing to a possible increase in shark attacks, including an uptick in reporting, a larger number of people using the water and beachgoers spending more time out of the year at the shore.

Warmer waters caused by climate change may also be driving an increase in shark populations in certain areas.

Staying safe at the beach

On the off chance that you do spot a shark near you in the water, "normal wild animal rules apply," Macdonald says.

Stay calm, and if the shark is acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable, calmly move away and leave the water.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also recommends that swimmers remain in groups, avoid entering the water if they're bleeding or it's dark outside and refrain from wearing shiny jewelry, which can appear to a shark like fish scales.

If a shark attacks you, fight back. "At the point at which you're in an animal's mouth, I would go for those sensitive spots — eyes, gills — that are going to make it regret having you in its mouth," Macdonald says. "But I want to always caveat that with: Until you're in its mouth, keep your hands to yourself."

Shark attack victims also can use objects to defend themselves, such as surfboards, diving gear and fishing equipment, the Victorian Fisheries Authority in Australia says.

If you or someone else is bitten by a shark, try to stop the bleeding as soon as possible and seek medical attention no matter how small the wound, the group adds.

But Macdonald notes that other animals are far deadlier than sharks, including moose, hippos and even pet dogs. There are also other dangerous threats to worry about at the beach, such as dehydration, sun exposure, riptides and drowning, she adds.

"When people ask me about safety risks at the beach and what they should be worried about, I tell them that the most dangerous thing they'll do that day is probably drive to the beach."
Copyright 2024 NPR

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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