How Dangerous Are Sharks? The Complete Guide With Stats

how dangerous are sharks?

How dangerous are sharks, exactly? It’s a question that every sea-goer has surely asked at least once. It’s a question that sea-goers in sharky hotspots around the globe – from the east coast of Australia to the wave-splattered beaches of South Africa – probably ask every time they dip their toe in salty water.

The great beasts of the ocean have gotten a bad rap ever since Spielberg introduced the world to the ongoings of Amity Island in Jaws. Na, scratch that – they had a bad rap LONG before that. J.S. Copley painted his fear-inducing Watson and the Shark back in 1776, depicting a young man being accosted by one in the waters of Cuba. Tales of bitten soldiers abounded after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945. This fear we feel has been around for a while.

But is it justified and how dangerous are sharks, really? That’s what this guide is all about. It will delve into the stats and consider the geography of the planet to try to get a feel for the true nature of what risks we’re running when we pull on the bathers and wax down the surfboard. Let’s get stuck in…

Shark attacks: The stats

Shark showing its teeth
Photo by Envato Elements

There’s only one place to go for stats on shark attacks: International Shark Attack File (ISAF).

They describe themselves as the “world’s only scientifically documented, comprehensive database of all known shark attacks.” Ever since being instituted in the late 1950s, they’ve counted all provoked and unprovoked shark incidents on the globe, and even retrospectively investigated historic shark attacks going back to the 19th century.

The headline figure? There have been over 3,000 shark attacks on humans since 1580. The vast majority of those – 2,916 to be precise – can be traced back to just 10 countries, and more than 50% (1,604 in all) are attributable to incidents that happened in the United States of America.

More recent data collection from the ISAF shows that there are around 81 shark attacks every year around the globe. That’s increasing, too, with 2015 coming in as the most attack-ridden year of all, with 97 incidents on its calendar. Most attacks aren’t fatal, though the numbers do show that an average of 4.3 people die each year from such incidents.

Contextualizing the stats on shark attacks

School of sharks
Photo by Envato Elements

Now we’ve taken a gander at the numbers, let’s try to add some perspective. Any statistician worth their salt will tell you that stats are one thing and how they actually apply to the real world is something else entirely.

Consider this…

Aerophobia is the fear of flying. It’s thought to affect up to 25 million adults in the US alone, which is many hundreds of millions globally. These are folks that are anxious about getting on a plane, often because they’re scared of crashing to the ground. Thing is, the stats show us that only 83,000 people have actually died in plane crashes since the 70s. Compare that the whopping 1.35 million that die EVERY YEAR in car crashes, and then consider how uncommon it is to suffer from a debilitating fear of driving (amaxophobia, for all you pub quizzers out there!).

The point here is that, while the numbers on shark attacks might look scary at first glance, they really mean nothing until they’ve been contextualized. To do that, you have to weigh up the rate of deaths and injuries from shark attacks against other risks, some of which you might take, routinely, every single day (like crossing the street, for example). In addition, you also have to consider how many shark attacks occur compared to how many people go in the ocean without being attacked.

So, how likely are shark attacks?

Sharks mouth up close
Photo by Envato Elements

First off, it’s fair to say that it’s extremely UNLIKELY that you’ll fall victim to a shark attack. How can we be so sure? Well…even with over 1,600 people having been killed by these mighty marine beasts in the USA alone, the numbers are still pretty small fry when you line them up against other causes of death.

The guys over at ISAF do a pretty darn good job of pointing this out on their site. They have dedicated pages that compare the numbers of people who died each year from shark bites to all manner of other things, both common and outlandish. For example, you’re…

· Over 21 times as likely to die from getting caught in a rip current as you are from a shark attack.

· More than 10 times as likely to die from being hit by lightening in the state of California as you are from a shark bite.

· 50% more likely to die from a sand hole collapse (whatever that is!) than from sharks.

Certain activities make shark attacks more likely

Group of sharks
Photo by Envato Elements

How dangerous are sharks? It depends on what you’re actually doing in the ocean. The stats show that the vast majority of unprovoked attacks on humans occur when said human is either diving or surfing. In fact, some estimations have it that surfers are the target of at least 50% of shark attacks – yep, it’s possible that over half of all incidents are aimed at board-touting, wave seekers.

At closer glance, it easy to see how that’s far from a coincidence. Here’s why:

· The location of surf spots – Lots of surf spots match up with shark habitats. They’re often on sandbars, near coral reefs, or close to river mouths, which is precisely where some of the most dangerous sharks, such as bull sharks, love to hang out. There’s even one surf spot in Costa Rica that’s known for the shark-infested river you have to cross to get there. Hopefully the waves are worth it!

· The look of a surfer in the water – Get yourself a six-foot board and sit right on top. Then look at the shadow that casts on the seabed. It’s not too different to the shape of a sea turtle, right? Right. Well…sea turtles are actually a favorite food of larger apex shark predators. Need we say more?

· Cuts in the water – Surfers often carry cuts, either from coral reefs or board fins, and that’s always a risk factor when we’re talking about a predator that can smell blood from up to 500 meters away underwater!

A lot depends on the type of shark you encounter

Underwater mako shark
Photo by Envato Elements

Not all sharks are created equal. Reading this article, you’re probably dreaming up images of two-meter-long great whites with multiple rows of serrated fangs. But there are hundreds of species of these sea dwellers, most of which are relatively small and pose zero threat to humans at all. To put it another way: A dogfish is a shark, you know?

Most experts agree that the vast majority of shark attacks are actually down to just a trio of different shark species. These are the three that have clocked up kill numbers over 100. Let’s take a look at the most dangerous in order:

· Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) – The star of Jaws and the shark that inspires fear into the hearts of all who swim in the ocean, the great white is a massive mackerel shark that can hit lengths of 5.8 meters. The stats show that these have bitten over 270 people since records began, making them by far the most deadly shark of all.

· Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) – The tiger shark is the last remaining member of its branch of sharks, and it’s downright huge. They can grow to over five meters in length at full adulthood. It was the creature responsible for biting the arm off surf pioneer and champ Beth Hamilton and has a kill count that’s second only to the great white.

· Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) – Highly aggressive and found all around the world in warm-water habitats, usually close to the coast, the bull shark is renowned for its ability to survive in freshwater and brackish water. It’s even been found hundreds of miles inland up major riverways!

The top countries for shark attacks

Great white showing teeth
Photo by Envato Elements

It’s no use blankly asking how dangerous are sharks? If you’re planning on swimming in a pool in a five-star hotel high in the European Alps, it’s unlikely they pose any danger at all to you and your perfect vacation. And that brings us to our final, and probably most important, aspect of shark attacks…It all depends where you are.

As we’ve already mentioned, a whopping 50% of shark attacks since 1958 are linked to incidents that occurred in just one country, the USA. After the stars and stripes, there are only three countries that count a total of over 100 shark attacks since records began: Australia, South Africa, and Brazil. And then there’s only one that pushes past the 50 mark: New Zealand.

This links up nicely with contextualizing those statistics on deaths from sharks. These are all countries where people are often in the ocean, where surfing and swimming are popular pastimes, and where reporting of shark attacks to authorities is generally very good. They are also countries with coastlines that are highly exposed to waters known to harbor the most dangerous sharks of all.

How dangerous are sharks? Our conclusion

There’s no getting around it – sharks are dangerous creatures…

The stats show that they routinely kill nearly five people each year around the globe, and injure and maim many more than that. We can also conclude that certain types of sharks are more dangerous than others – specifically great whites, tiger sharks, and bull sharks – and that certain countries are higher risk places – specifically the USA, Australia, and South Africa.

On the flip side, it’s worth adding some perspective to the stats on shark attacks. Yes, they can kill humans, but deaths from a run-in with a shark are a whole load less likely than death as a result of a car accident, getting caught in a rip current, or even a lightening strike. 

Joseph

For more than 11 years, Joe has worked as a freelance travel writer. His writing and explorations have brought him to various locations, including the colonial towns of Mexico, the bustling chowks of Mumbai, and the majestic Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not crafting his next epic blog post on the top Greek islands or French ski resorts, he can often be found engaging in his top two hobbies of surfing and hiking.

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