With summer on the way, we get a lot of questions about water safety, and in particular about the risk of shark attack. Here are a few of the most common, with our answers.
Should I be worried about the risk of shark attack?
Nope. There are billions of discrete beach visits every year, and fatal shark attacks are extremely rare—only a few per year worldwide. Although there are things you can do to lower your risk even further, it’s already so small as to be nearly nonexistent. You’re vastly more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the beach, or drown while you’re there. You’re also more likely to be killed by your toaster. Although shark attacks get a lot of media attention, statistically speaking they are very uncommon events.
Why do sharks attack humans?
Scientists believe that most encounters humans have with sharks are the result of mistaken identity. Sharks don’t want to eat people—in fact, with our very dense mammalian bones, we aren’t an attractive meal for a group of animals evolved to eat fish. However, in murky water sharks may not be able to clearly identify a human, and they can be quite curious. They tend to explore things they’re curious about using their mouths—they don’t have hands like we do!—and most shark bites are what we call investigatory, which means the shark was primarily trying to learn more about the thing it bit. It’s not very accurate to call that an “attack,” even when it unfortunately leads to human injury.
Are all sharks potentially dangerous to humans?
Definitely not. There are over 500 species of sharks, and they live all sorts of places that humans don’t—in the deep ocean, under arctic ice. Many will never encounter a human. More than that, most species of sharks are very small compared to a Great White or a Tiger Shark. Many don’t have the big pointy teeth we associate with sharks. In fact, the percentage of sharks that would even be able to harm a human is not very high. Most sharks are terrifying only to the small fish and invertebrates that make up their diets. Google “Pajama Cat Shark” or “Port Jackson Shark” to see some sharks that don’t look much like the ones on shark week.
How can I stay safe in the water?
If you are worried about encountering a shark in the water, avoid swimming in places and times where sharks are most likely to be present to feed. Stay away from river mouths and murky water, and don’t swim if there are a lot of prey fish around you—where there’s shark food, sharks will also be present. Sharks are most active hunting at dawn and dust (the word ecologists use for this is crepuscular) so swim during the day. You’ll be less likely to encounter a shark, and if you do, it will be easier for them to tell what you are.
Most of all, stay safe at the beach from the real dangers: drink lots of water, wear sunscreen, and swim safely, obeying posted signs.
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