A 10-year-old boy from Maryland was bitten by a shark in the Bahamas on Monday, police said. It's one of at least half a dozen incidents in recent months in which a shark has attacked a human — a few times fatally.
In December, there were at least four deadly shark attacks, according to reports. A 26-year-old woman died after a shark severed her leg while she was trying to help her child on a float in Melaque Bay, Mexico, officials said. Days after, a 44-year-old Boston woman died after a shark attacked her while she was paddleboarding in the Bahamas. In Sonora, Mexico, a 22-year-old fisherman had a fatal encounter with a great white shark while diving for scallops off the fishing port of Yavaros. The next day, a 39-year-old surfer died in Maui after a shark attack.
“The data suggests that shark bites are the consequence of people being in the water in large numbers at the same time as sharks are in the waters in large numbers,” Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's shark research program, which tracks shark bites, told Yahoo News. “Lots of environmental cues caused this to happen.”
Has there been an uptick in shark bites?
Naylor’s simple answer to this is that the recent shark attacks have not been statistically significant. He explained that the average number of unprovoked shark bites each year ranges from 55 to 85, mostly in Australia and the U.S., and can change from one year to the next, depending on weather conditions.
Naylor said that in 2022, “We've had quite a few fatalities more than a typical year. Typically, we get between four and six fatalities around the world … and most of that has been due to white sharks by the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, largely on the surface. So, Australians surf all the time and they go to the best breaks, and sometimes the best breaks are near seal colonies, and seal colonies attract white sharks. So, they've got really good waves next to a food source, next to some white sharks, and accidents happen.”
Naylor used the fisherman in Mexico as an example of what he called a “provoked bite.”
“That diver didn't provoke the shark intentionally, but they're pursuing activities which are high risk,” he said. “They're bringing stimulus into the area and they're in white shark habitat, in shallow water, and the white shark sees all these bubbles, and it smells all this food. Then it sees this unsuspecting diver and it bites them.”
Why do sharks attack humans?
Part of the reason can be attributed to murky water, Naylor said: “About 60% of shark bites that we have in the database are in very low visibility. That increases the chance that the sharks have to sort of bite first and think later, right? So, if you're a predator, you can't sit there and ponder whether or not this is a good idea. They go for it. Two-thirds of the time they’re like, 'What on earth was that?' And the shark is petrified and swims away from it as fast as possible.”
“That said,” he added, “a lot of the shark bites by white sharks are actually in very clear water. And that's because, you know, they see something like a board from underneath, and they go, ‘Oh, my goodness, look at that, I can see it.’ If they couldn't see the board, they wouldn't be able to target it. So not all sharks are the same.”
What is a common misconception about sharks?
“People should know that sharks do not target people. If they did, we'd have about 10,000 shark bites a day,” said Naylor. “Chances are sharks are doing their very level best to avoid people. There's been about 400 white shark bites that we've got records of since 1960 and almost all of them have been cases of mistaken identity. The shark is either stimulated in an unnatural way or the mistakes are served up as a [presumed] seal.”
What’s the difference between encountering a shark in the wild vs. a controlled tank?
According to the Royal Bahamas Police Force, the 10-year-old boy from Maryland was attacked “while participating in an expedition in a Shark Tank” at a local resort. He was taken to the hospital and was reported to be in stable condition. Naylor warned that wild animals are not pets, and sharks are no different.
“Predatory animals in the wild are hungry and searching for food,” said Naylor. “They explore lots of opportunities to acquire food, and will experiment. If it's something that is adverse for them or something that spooks them, they will swim away as quickly as possible.”
But, Naylor explains, “If you're stuck in an aquarium tank, there's not that many places they can go. So, right from the start, when they're constrained in a space that is much smaller than they’re used to, it basically makes their behavior somewhat different than it would be in the wild. So, a captive animal has very different stereotypic behaviors than a wild animal.”
Have recent shark encounters been an effect of climate change?
Naylor said that sharks are not adversely affected by climate change, having survived several eras of extinction dating back millions of years. However, he noted that sharks go wherever the food supply is, and so climate change can indirectly affect the number of sharks in an area.
“The fish move depending on the temperature. So, if certain fishes are moving north because the waters are getting warmer, the sharks will follow them,” he said. “We're starting to see some evidence that some of the sharks are moving slightly further north than we're used to seeing them.”
How to stay alert in the ocean
Naylor suggested following these tips to stay safe when swimming in the ocean:
Don't swim alone because sharks try to separate prey.
Don't go into murky waters. That's where most sharks mistake identities.
Avoid swimming at dawn or dusk. This is when a lot of shark species begin to hunt.
Stay close to shore. If you encounter trouble, it's going to be harder to get to safety if you are farther out.
Avoid wearing jewelry if you're in tropical waters. Tropical sharks target schools of fish and can mistake jewelry for fish.
Try to avoid splashing around or creating low-frequency, struggling-like noises; these can bring curious sharks into an otherwise unusual environment for them.
Listen to safety professionals on location.