Shark Attacks Rare

From the WebMD Archives

July 13, 2001 -- Last Friday, 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast lost his arm to a 7-foot shark in shallow waters off the Florida panhandle. While physicians have successfully reattached his arm, he remains in critical but stable condition due to blood loss, and the latest reports say he has moved his reattached arm.

Jesse's shark encounter has raised many questions about shark attacks. Where do sharks attack? Which sharks are more likely to attack? How often do they attack? And most importantly, what do you do if encounter one?

Erich K. Ritter, PhD, is senior scientist with the Global Shark Attack File in Princeton, N.J., and their leading investigator on Jessie's case.

Shark attacks really don't happen very often. Your chances of being attacked by a shark in the U.S. are about 15 times less than your chance of being struck by lightning, Ritter says. You're more likely to be killed by a pig than a shark. Ritter specializes in shark-human interactions and has participated in more than 4,000 staged encounters with sharks, studying how they behave.

"Florida is the world capital of shark attacks," he tells WebMD. "Last year there were 79 unprovoked cases worldwide, and 34 of them were in Florida." In the U.S., shark attacks also can happen in North Carolina, Alabama, California, and other coastal waters.

The greatest number of recorded incidents has involved white sharks, followed by bull, tiger, and, in Florida, the blacktip shark.

But Ritter prefers to talk about shark "accidents" -- not attacks. Emergency physician Richard Nateman, MD, agrees.

"Humans are not really what [sharks] want. When they get a human, that's a mistake," he tells WebMD. They do want fish, so the best strategy for avoiding a shark attack is not looking like a fish, he explains.

Also, sharks usually won't attack someone who's standing, or in a vertical position. "They want to attack horizontal things because they know fish are horizontal," he says. Nateman is CEO of South Florida Emergency Physicians at Baptist Hospital in Miami and has seen about a dozen shark victims during his years at the hospital.

Even though the risks of attack are low, you may still want to take steps to further limit that risk. Nateman and Ritter offer the following tips:

  • Swim where lifeguards can see you.
  • Swim where other people are around.
  • Know how to do CPR -- that's a good idea for many reasons.
  • Avoid swimming during dusk and dawn. This is when sharks have the best vision.
  • Avoid murky waters, harbor entrances, channels, and steep drop-offs. "Murky water is attractive to sharks because it has more nutrients," Ritter explains. "Steep drop-offs or anything that increases the current has more available food per time unit, so that brings in more sharks."

If you do encounter a shark, what should you do?

  • Stay calm. "Sharks are highly intelligent, and they can sense your speeded-up heart rate," says Ritter.
  • If the shark has seen you, never ever swim away from it. Stay still.
  • Even if they bump into you, do not move. That's how they check you out.
  • Stay vertical.
  • Don't struggle and splash. You don't want to look like a struggling fish.
  • If a group of people sees a shark close by, they shouldn't huddle together. Instead, try to stay at least a body length away from the next person.