Why Do Shark Attacks Happen? Here’s What You Need to Know

Most people are terrified of sharks. Even though shark attacks remain rare, each one sets off a media feeding frenzy of attention-grabbing headlines. For instance, Newsweek characterized a recent Cape Cod shark attack as “unprecedented in its ferocity.” Hollywood Life called it a “shocking tragedy.” The Guardian named it “a terrible reminder of our fragility.” And CBS called it an event right out of Jaws.

But the fact remains that shark attacks are scary. And most people don’t know much about them. Why do shark attacks happen? Why are they becoming more common? And what do you need to know to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation? Get all the facts, ahead.

Why do shark attacks happen?

Great white shark

Great white shark | Peter_Nile/iStock

Discovery reports that each year, shark attacks kill about ten humans. Sharks don’t usually hunt humans, but if they do attack, “it is usually a case of mistaken identity,” Discovery explains. Sharks typically eat sea lions, seals, and other prey with similar bodies. Sometimes, they’ll investigate potential food items by taking a bite. Sharks also attack when humans touch or otherwise disturb them.

The Conversation reports that factors ranging from rises in human population to the destruction of sharks’ habitats to changes in water and climate to the distribution and abundance of sharks’ prey can influence encounters between sharks and humans. The popularity of sports like surfing is likely also a factor in exposing people to sharks and shark attacks.

Why are shark attacks becoming more common?

The Florida Natural History Museum reports that shark attacks seem to be becoming more common worldwide. Likewise, National Geographic reports that the number of shark attacks that happen each year is increasing. But the increase isn’t in line with the skyrocketing human population. Plus, “Of the 80-odd shark attacks that happen each year, fatality rates are decreasing thanks to improving medicine and medical response time.”

Vox reports that experts have suggested a few reasons why shark attacks might be happening more often. First of all, more and more people are going to the beach each summer. Secondly, sharks may be becoming more numerous thanks to years of conservation efforts. And thirdly, better reporting systems mean that even minor attacks not get recorded, when they previously wouldn’t have shown up in the statistics.

Are shark attacks humans’ fault?

Sharks haven’t developed a taste for human flesh, National Geographic reports. So why do shark attacks happen? Vox explains that many shark attacks are technically humans’ fault. Experts make a distinction between “provoked” and “unprovoked” attacks. A “provoked” attack is where a person makes the first contact, but an “unprovoked” attack happens when a shark strikes first. Unprovoked attacks typically get all the attention in headlines. But humans also provoke sharks — accidentally or on purpose — with a boat, fishing line, or something else.

National Geographic notes that you shouldn’t put yourself in a position that increases the likelihood of a shark attack. If you’re getting up close and personal with seals — sharks’ usual prey — try not to use watercraft that resemble seals from below, such as paddleboards and kayaks. When you do go kayaking, pick a kayak that’s not bright yellow or green or orange, but blue instead. Go with lower-contrast surfboards and swimwear, and avoid wearing shiny jewelry.

How else can you avoid a shark attack?

Similarly, National Geographic reports that experts advise staying out of the water if you’re bleeding, even a little. Avoid situations that are potentially confusing for a shark, such as foggy, rainy, or low-light conditions. And always “be chill,” avoiding excessive splashing, National Geographic advises. “Sharks are hypersensitive to electromagnetic signals, meaning they can literally sense fear or excitement or your pounding heart, and have been known to react predatorily to such stimuli.”

Never go solo when you think sharks might be nearby. And pay attention to your surroundings, especially if seagulls freak out or seals start to rush ashore. Avoid swimming after shark sightings. And if you see a shark, get out of the water. National Geographic notes that no matter how many precautions you take, we don’t know enough about sharks to prevent attacks.

But ultimately, there’s just a 1 in 3,748,067 chance that you’ll be attacked and killed by a shark. That means that you’re much more likely to die by a dog attack, a lightning strike, or a car crash — or especially cancer or heart disease. 

Read more: Here’s How to Save Your Own Life if a Shark Approaches You

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