Recent shark bites in Florida and Hawaii and a suspected case in New Jersey have piqued interest in an age-old summer question for beachgoers — is it safe to go in the water?
Scientists and researchers who study sharks said the overwhelming answer to that question is yes, it is safe. Potentially dangerous interactions between humans and sharks are uncommon, and serious injuries and deaths from the bites are vanishingly rare, scientists said.
Nonetheless, the dramatic nature of shark bites and the stories of survivors, such as Hawaii surfer Mike Morita’s tale of fighting off a shark in April, capture the imagination. It’s a good idea to remember just how rare shark bites truly are, scientists said.
How often do shark bites occur?
The shark attack file reported a year ago that one reason for the decline in bites might be be the global decline of shark populations.
It’s too early in the warm season to get an idea of how active this year will be for interactions between humans and sharks, said Greg Skomal, a shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
“If we get lots of bait fish and forage fish species close to shore, we have a super hot summer that draws people to beaches, more people in the water, then we can determine the risk,” Skomal.
The United States and Australia are typically the sites of the most reported shark bites. Florida had more bites than anywhere else on Earth last year with 16 unprovoked bites, two of which resulted in amputations, the shark attack file said.
This month, two Florida fishermen were bitten by sharks in separate incidents less than 36 hours apart.
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However, it’s worth bearing in mind that many interactions with sharks are with smaller species that are unlikely to cause serious injuries, said James Sulikowski, director of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station at Oregon State University. Those species might bite a human, realize we are not their preferred prey and move on, he said.
Is it safe to swim?
“We are intruders in their environment. What we can do is be logical and safe about that and avoid areas where sharks are going to be feeding,” Sulikowski said. “When an interaction occurs, it’s mistaken identity — we are in an area where a shark is looking to eat.”