The Truth About Shark Attacks

Hunting of a Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) breaching in an attack on seal. South Africa

Few animals inspire the level of fear that sharks do, thanks to “Jaws” and other sensational tales of deadly encounters, and the number of unprovoked shark attacks was way up in 2021, researchers have reported. Sightings are already being reported in the Cape Cod and the Jersey Shore areas this season, including one massive Great White nicknamed Ironbound. But these admittedly intimidating creatures get a bad rap. If you’re thinking of break at the beach, here are some things to keep in mind about shark attacks, including just how unlikely they really are.

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Truro, Massachusetts, USA - March 23, 2021: Morning view of a shark warning sign along path to Ballston Beach on Cape Cod

The United States leads the world in unprovoked shark bites, notching 47 cases in 2021, according to the University of Florida. That's 64% of the world's total unprovoked bites, and represents a big rise from the 33 unprovoked bites reported in the United States in 2020. Australia was a distant second with 12, though three of those attacks were fatal, compared with just one here. Well over half of the U.S. bites, 28, occurred in Florida.

Unprovoked bites were way up worldwide in 2021, rising about 40% — to 73 from 52. The increase follows three years of declines. Researchers say 2020's numbers may have been artificially depressed by pandemic lockdowns. Time will tell what 2022 will bring, but one attack has already occurred near a California beach.

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Attack great white shark

Petrified of sharks? Maybe this will help you keep the risk in perspective: According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, your chances of being killed by a shark are about 1 in 3.75 million. Compare that with your odds of being hit by lightning (1 in 79,746), drowning (1 in 1,134), dying in a car crash (1 in 84), or dying of heart disease (1 in 5).

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Aedes aegypti or yellow fever mosquito sucking blood on skin,Macro close up show markings on its legs and a marking in the form of a lyre on the upper surface of its thorax

In the grand scheme of things, mosquitos kill about 1 million people a year thanks to diseases such as malaria. Also way deadlier than sharks, according to CNET: snakes, dogs, scorpions, tapeworms, crocodiles, hippos, deer, jellyfish, bees, ants, horses … the list goes on.

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates - January 16, 2013: sharks on ice at the Deira fish market, fish vendors selling fish in the background, focus on the foreground.

When it comes to whether humans are more deadly to sharks or sharks are more deadly to humans, there’s no contest. We kill an average of 100 million sharks a year, mostly in commercial fishing operations. Compare that with 10 fatal shark attacks against humans in 2020 (and even that is a big spike from the average of four per year).

Swimming together in the ocean

Of 548 known shark species, only 13 have bitten humans in 10 or more confirmed incidents. The biggest threats are what the Florida Museum of Natural History calls the “big three”: white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks.

Underwater selfie with friend. Scuba diver and shark in deep sea.

Researchers at an Australian university found that 89% of unprovoked shark attacks between 1982 and 2011 involved men. Researchers say it’s unlikely that sharks inherently find something about the Y chromosome more irresistible, though. Instead, men are likely attacked more because they’re more likely to engage in activities that put them at risk, such as surfing and diving.

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Shark swimming over reef with fish

While conventional wisdom holds that sharks attack after confusing humans for prey, the more likely reasons are curiosity and confusion. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that sharks rarely bite more than once or twice even during fatal attacks. They may simply be “mouthing” an unfamiliar organism, or even defending their territory against what they think may be a rival hunter.

An advisory for tourists surfers and anyone entering the water that there is a danger of shark attack at the oceanside beach with the pier in the background

Researchers classify unprovoked attacks as hit-and-runs, sneak attacks, or bump-and-bites. Hit-and-run attacks, when a shark may mistakenly bite a swimmer in shallow water, then flee, are the least serious. Sneak attacks involve sharks attacking without warning in deeper water, while sharks in bump-and-bite attacks bump first, then attack.

Great White Shark circling below a patch of blood in the water in the deep blue ocean. The shark looks ready to attack. In the background their are fish swimming around.

That whole “blood in the water” trope from shark movies is exaggerated. The sharks with the most sensitive sense of smell can detect smells at roughly 1 part per 10 billion, marine biologist Maddalena Bearzi tells Reader’s Digest. That may sound extreme, but that’s akin to a drop of blood in a swimming pool. In other words, a shark will still need to be fairly close to begin with to detect your minor cut. Still, experts advise against swimming with an open wound, and say women may even want to think twice during their period.


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sharks will nosh on just about anything, whether that’s meat, plants, or … well, other stuff. Tires, a fur coat, and a full suit of armor are among the more curious finds from shark stomachs.

A lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) passes underneath along the ocean floor

Despite their pop-culture portrayal as ravenous eating machines, sharks can and do go for quite awhile without food. Most can fast for up to six weeks, and researchers even documented one shark that didn’t eat for 15 months. Researchers with SeaWorld say sharks only eat anywhere between 1% and 10% of their bodyweight per week.

A local Hawaiian surfer surfing at Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii.

Because sharks can see high-contrast colors well, they’re more likely to be attracted to bright hues (and shark researchers have even been known to refer to “yum yum yellow”). On the flip side, low-contrast colors such as blue or black are less likely to catch a shark’s eye — but the risk, of course, is that it’s also much harder for human rescuers to spot those colors in the water.

A great white shark breaching the surface with open mouth. Location:

Nearly everyone has been conditioned to think that a well-placed blow to a shark schnoz is the best way to fight an attack, but some experts disagree. For one, a shark’s eyes and gills are actually more sensitive than its nose. There’s also the pesky fact that punching a shark in the nose requires you to get pretty close to its mouth — generally not a good idea.

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While dolphins and sharks aren’t exactly best friends, swimming near a pod of friendly dolphins in no way means you’re safe from sharks. You’re actually likely to find sharks near dolphins because these carnivores often frequent the same hunting spots, according to LiveScience. And while dolphins occasionally do antagonize their toothy rivals, these incidents are few and far between.

Bunker Bay, Western Australia, Australia August 2 2020: Huge shark attacks surfer and beach closed
Evan Hallein/istockphoto

A single great white shark attacked five victims, killing four, in the span of 12 days along the Jersey Shore in 1916. Some have speculated that the gruesome incidents even inspired Peter Benchley to write “Jaws,” (a claim he has since denied). In response, communities fenced their beaches and even offered rewards for fishermen to kill as many sharks as possible.

USS Indianapolis
Wikimedia Commons

Talk about a nightmare: When a Japanese submarine sank a U.S. ship in 1945, almost 300 sailors died immediately, and about 900 others were left struggling to survive in the open water. The chaos and blood soon drew sharks who fed for days on both the living and the dead, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Ultimately, only about 300 sailors survived the ordeal. While many drowned or died of heat or thirst, anywhere from a few dozen to 150 may have been killed by the sharks.

Blacktip sharks looking for snack

Beginning in December 1957, seven people died and several others were injured in shark attacks off the coast of South Africa over the course of several weeks. In response, officials gave lifeguards rifles, built wooden barriers, and even dropped depth charges — essentially, underwater bombs — into the ocean. Unfortunately, the bombs simply managed to kill a bunch of fish and attract even more sharks, according to History Daily. Oops.

A Cage Diving in Guadalupe Island in Mexico

Rodney Fox was spear-fishing off the Australian coast when a shark attacked him in 1963. He was left with a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and countless gashes, but survived. Instead of swearing off the ocean, he went on to study sharks intently, inventing cage diving and becoming a go-to expert, even helping Steven Spielberg obtain underwater footage for “Jaws.”

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If “Sharknado” taught us anything, it’s that sharks and tornadoes are just as enthralling a combination as snakes and planes. In 2017, Cyclone Debbie may have picked up a bull shark and deposited it in Ayr, Australia, which is several miles inland. Fortunately for the citizens of Ayr, instead of dozens of hungry great whites raining down on the city, there was just one very lonely, very dead shark deposited in a large puddle.

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