Jamie Hansen, Whitney Mountain, Dean Schaffer and Alexandra Wexler contributed to this report.
“If you wanted to get shark-bitten, I could tell you how to do it,” said John McCosker, a great white shark expert and chair of the Department of Aquatic Biology at the California Academy of Sciences. “If you wanted to avoid getting shark-bitten with 100 percent assurance, I can’t, other than staying out of the water. But I will also say that you’re very safe in California water.”
Despite a 25-percent increase in shark attacks worldwide from 2009 to 2010, the number of attacks in California stayed constant at just four, according to a report released in February by the International Shark Attack File. The Bay Area’s notorious Red Triangle, a region extending off the coast from Bodega Bay out slightly beyond the Farallon Islands and down the coast to Big Sur, is a global hot spot for shark attacks. But Florida still had far more. Here are the key numbers for 2010:
- There were 79 attacks worldwide — the most since 2000, when there were 80. (See the Global Shark Attacks, 2010 map below for an interactive map of the attacks.)
- Florida had the most attacks of any U.S. state, with 13 — down from 18 in 2009. (See the United States map below for an interactive map of all the attacks that occurred in the nation between 2000 and 2010.)
- North Carolina also had more attacks than California, with five.
- California tied with South Carolina and Hawaii with four attacks each.
- Both California and Florida had one fatal attack; all other states had none.
Check out how shark attack statistics have changed over the years. Click on a graphic to enlarge it. The story continues below.
One factor that contributed to the spike in shark attacks was five freak attacks in one week off the coast of Egypt. McCosker explained that a cargo ship dumped dead sheep into the Red Sea, which inadvertently caused a sort of feeding frenzy.
Moving beyond the statistics, McCosker explained that the public, and in a lot of cases, the scientific community’s fascination with shark attacks dates back to the 1970s — and a very memorable musical score in a movie.
“It wasn’t until the film ‘Jaws’ that all of us really became aware of sharks — the reality and the public misconception,” he said. “Was ‘Jaws’ an exaggeration? Of course it was. But at the same time, it was a very exciting film, and it even made the biologist wonder about how safe it was to be studying a kelp bed with that music playing behind us…”
Julie Kingsley, a surfer who frequents the waves in Half Moon Bay, knows this feeling well.
“In the first few years I was learning, I was so scared of sharks, so I was always looking over my shoulder, and I couldn’t really relax,” she explained. “It was hard to learn.”
Like most other athletes, though, Kingsley has come to accept the risks that come along with the sport she loves. “It’s always a risk every surfer takes every time they go out there,” she said. “Either get over it or get out of the water, because that’s where they live. You’re stepping into their world.”
View shark attacks by state from 2000 to 2010. Click on a bubble for more details.
View U.S. Attacks by State, 2000-2010 in a larger map
Having spent a substantial amount of time in the open water with great white sharks, McCosker can confirm that these animals are not out to “get” anybody.
“They didn’t attack us underwater,” he said. “We had the sharks circling us, interested in us, but making no attempt to consume us or attack us.”
Sharks attack when they mistake humans for their normal food — mostly pinnipeds, such as sea lions and elephant seals, McCosker explained. From underwater, the silhouette of a surfer can look very much like a sea lion to the sharks, especially if the surfboard is short or has a split tail.
In addition, of three great white shark attacks last year in California, two happened to kayakers, a relatively new phenomenon that McCosker attributes to an increase in kayaking off the coast.
“One of the two kayakers was at a location where a nearly identical attack had happened on a kayaker three years earlier,” McCosker said.
Many surfers know that attacks were up last year, but that does not necessarily keep them from doing what they love.
“It takes a lot of commitment and a lot of time,” said Scott Eggers, a lifelong surfer whose 9-year-old son is also learning. He added that he and his family are “very aware” of the increase in attacks.
“They exist, but they’re not out there to eat you,” he said, “but it’s just part of surfing. There are certain places that I don’t surf and certain times of year because I know there are sharks.”
View global shark attacks in 2010. Click on a marker for more details.
View Global Shark Attacks, 2010 in a larger map
McCosker agreed. Avoiding beaches with a history of shark attacks is essential, he said. In addition, staying close to the shore and avoiding diving alone could significantly decrease a swimmer or surfer’s chances of being attacked.
“In summary, it’s easy to say where you might be attacked, but harder to say where you won’t be attacked,” McCosker said. “That is, white sharks repeat their attack behavior at certain locations and in certain ways.”
If you are attacked, though, there are some things that you can do to vastly increase your chances of survival.
“Our work has so far indicated that once you’re attacked by a white shark, if you are still alive, the shark won’t consume you until you die,” McCosker explained. “But if you do get bitten, as most swimmers and surfers have been in California, there’s a high probability that you’ll survive, particularly if there’s someone in the water to save you and take you to shore.
“The buddy system is very, very important,” he added.
The single most important thing for surfers and other ocean-goers to remember is you should never, ever go out alone.
Even with all the expert advice, a little common sense can go a long way. “Be alert, be aware,” Kingsley said. “If you see a big fin and it’s not a porpoise… you know.”