Pity the poor shark. If ever a creature needed a good PR campaign, it might be the shark – especially when it comes to those headline-grabbing – but very rare – shark attacks.
Studies show that lightning is a far greater killer than sharks, at least in the United States. From 1959 to 2008 nationwide, 1,930 people were killed by lightning, while only 25 died from shark attacks. In Texas during that same time period, 208 fatalities occurred from lightning strikes compared to only one shark attack death. The drive to the beach is far more dangerous than any shark encounter, says Texas A&M University at Galveston marine expert Andre Landry.
"You really don't have to worry very much about sharks when you're at the beach," Landry says.
"There's always a 'fear factor' when people are in the water and you never really know what is nearby you under the surface, where you can't see.
"It's been proven many times that sharks do not intentionally go after humans as a food source," he adds. "When a shark does attack, it's almost always because it was after a nearby food source and a human was there at the same time. Surfers are very common in California, and when a shark attack occurs there, it's usually because to a shark, a surfer looks like a seal – one of their common food sources – riding a wave."
According to the International Shark Attack File, part of the Florida Museum of Natural History and the home of the best data about shark attacks, there have been 26 shark attacks in the U.S. this year, with only 1 fatality. As usual, Florida leads the nation with 12 attacks and the only shark attack death has occurred in that state.
Texas has reported two attacks.
The odds of winning the lottery are probably far better than getting attacked by a shark. The Shark Attack File folks compute that the odds of getting killed by a shark attack are 1 in 264 million.
Compare that to 50 to 100 people killed worldwide each year by bee stings (bees kill more persons annually than all venomous animals combined), and about 100 people die each year from an allergic reaction from eating peanuts, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.
While there are numerous types of sharks, only four are most frequently cited in encounters with humans – the bull shark, the tiger shark, the great white shark and the oceanic white tip shark.
"The bull shark is known for its aggressiveness," Landry says.
"It's been known to swim hundreds of miles upstream in rivers like the Mississippi and can be found in fresh water many miles from the ocean. Tiger sharks and bull sharks are common in the Gulf of Mexico, but it's rare to see a great white, and the oceanic white tip sharks are almost never seen in shallow waters.
"When you consider all of the people in the world who are in the water at any given moment, the number of shark attacks is really a very, very small number," he explains. "I go wade fishing in the gulf all the time with my son in chest-deep water, and we see many other people doing the same type of fishing, and we never have any problems.
"To lessen any chance of a shark encounter, it might be a good idea to avoid swimming during low light periods, such as dawn and dusk. If you use good common sense when you're at the beach, you should have no worries at all about a shark attack."