How to Avoid Becoming Shark Bait: Two Decades of Shark Attacks

Written by | Updated July 31, 2019

From Spielberg to the Discovery Channel, sharks have captured the world’s imagination. The media portrays them as toothy terrors that emerge from the deep to devour innocent swimmers. But is that real or just Hollywood? 

With the premiere of Shark Week 2019 on July 28, we wanted to sink our teeth into the facts and statistics surrounding shark attacks and the likelihood of encountering a shark on your beach vacation. Because of overfishing, the populations of large shark species have declined over 90%.1 The truth is, we’re more of a threat to sharks than they are to us. 

We dove into the data to learn about the history of shark attacks in the US since 2000.

moving map comparing shark attacks over the past two decades

Despite what you see in the movies and on TV, shark attacks are relatively rare. And when they do occur, most victims are surfing or swimming before the attack. In 2019 so far, there has been only one fatal attack in the US: a 65-year-old swimmer in Hawaii. In 2018, a 26-year-old boogie boarder in Massachusetts was also fatally attacked.

The latter may sound unusual, but shark attacks have increased in the Northeast in recent years due to warming ocean temperatures, leading to more dangers in states like the Carolinas, Massachusetts, and New York.2

Our Fishy Findings 

  • Florida and Hawaii hold the top spots for most shark attacks out of any other coastal states.
  • Out of the 91 million recreational swimmers in the US, there are only about 44 attacked by sharks each year.
  • There have been only 17 fatal shark attacks in the last 20 years in the US, eight in the past decade and nine the decade before.
  • Even with growing coastal populations, the number of nonfatal shark attacks has remained about the same between the 2000s and 2010s. From 2000–2009 there were 429 nonfatal attacks, and from 2010–2019 there were 436.
  • On a global average, only six people die from shark attacks each year.
  • There were no shark-related fatalities in the US in 2017. 
  • Men are more likely to fall victim to shark attacks perhaps because they participate in activities like surfing, diving, and long-distance swimming more often than women. Since 2000, one in four victims were female, and three in four were male. 

Most Common Shark Species in Attacks

Over 375 shark species swim the oceans, but there are only three responsible for a majority of attacks. The famous great white sharks, tiger sharks, and stout bull sharks are often the culprits and tend to live in warm waters of the Atlantic and Southern Pacific.

Great WhiteTiger SharkBull Shark
bullshark
Great whites are swimming machines that can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh over two tons. They live along most major coasts in the US, with the highest concentrations in the Northeast and California. Great whites may be famous for devouring people, but humans aren’t their favorite dish. These sharks prefer meatier catches like sea lions and porpoises. The tiger shark can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to 1,400 pounds. They’re scavengers known to eat anything from turtles to old license plates. Tropical and subtropical reefs and harbors are typical habitats, especially in the Pacific and Carribean. And while they are dangerous, tiger sharks are threatened by overfishing for fins, skin, and liver.Stocky bull sharks can live in fresh and salt water. They live in warm waters off the Pacific coast of the US, the Caribbean, the Ivory Coast of Africa, and throughout Oceania. While few sightings are on record, bull sharks have been known to travel the Mississippi River as far as Illinois. They grow up to 11 feet long at maturity and weigh up to 300 pounds on average.

Shark Attack Numbers by State 

Since 2000, Florida has consistently had more shark attacks than any other state. Of the 487 attacks in Florida during the past 20 years, only three have been fatal. Hawaii comes in second with a total of 117 shark attacks but more fatalities. Since 2010, Northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Maine have seen an increase in attacks.

US Shark Attacks 2000–2009 US Shark Attacks 2010–2019**
Florida* 269 Florida* 218
Hawaii* 44 Hawaii* 73
California* 42 South Carolina 38
South Carolina 28 California* 37
North Carolina* 26 North Carolina 32
Texas 15 Texas 14
Oregon 6 Oregon 9
Alabama 4 Alabama 4
Louisiana 2 Massachusetts * 4
Georgia 1 New Jersey 4
Virginia* 1 Louisiana 2
Massachusetts 0 Georgia 3
New Jersey 0 New York 2
New York 0 Virginia 1
Delaware 0 Delaware 1
Maine 0 Maine 1
Washington 0 Washington 1
Total 438 Total 444

*Included at least one fatal attack.

**This includes recorded attacks through June 2019.

What Is the Likelihood of a Shark Attack

Shark attacks are traumatic but, thankfully, rare. Because of sensational headlines and overblown reports, it’s easy to worry about swimming in the ocean. Fortunately, your chances of being attacked by a shark or even encountering one are slim. You’re more likely to die from the flu or excessive cold than a shark.3

For most people, the risk of being attacked by a shark is 1:738 million. If you’re a surfer, it’s 1:17 million, and it’s 1:136 million if you’re a scuba diver. Overall, shark attacks shouldn’t concern average Americans. 

Shark Safety Tips 

Hopefully, you’ll never encounter a wild shark in the open water, but keep these tips in mind.

  • Swim together: Most sharks attack individuals because they mistake humans for other creatures like seals. 
  • Keep the shore in sight: Straying too far from shore will leave you isolated from help and farther into shark territory. 
  • Don’t swim at night: Sharks are most active at night and hard to see in the dark. 
  • Don’t ignore shark warnings: It’s common sense, but don’t enter the water during a shark watch. Signs posted on the beach indicate any dangers, so be sure to stay vigilant.
  • Watch for sandbars and ocean drop-offs: These spots tend to be rich in wildlife perfect for shark snacks. Be extra careful in these areas.
  • Don’t swim if you’re bleeding: If you’re bleeding from a wound, don’t go in the water—sharks are attracted to blood. 
  • Watch for sea life: Sharks eat fish and other aquatic critters, so be careful in areas like reefs and sandbars. 

If you do run into a shark, keep your cool and remember these tips. 

  • Exercise common sense: Be alert when swimming in the ocean. You are entering the shark’s territory, so respect the shark and its natural habitat. 
  • Maintain eye contact: Sharks hunt by ambushing their prey. If you see a shark circling you, be sure to watch it carefully to show it’s lost the element of surprise.
  • Don’t splash around: If you encounter a shark, don’t panic. Splashing and thrashing in the water will only entice it. Sharks have been known to give “exploratory bites” when they encounter something new (like humans). The best thing to do is to lose the shark’s interest. 
  • Don’t swim at river mouths and estuaries: These areas are a favorite hangout of bull sharks. The mix of salt and fresh water create a fertile environment for animals that are sharks’ preferred prey.

Methodology

SafeWise analyzed data from all shark attacks, both fatal and nonfatal, reported to Global Shark Attack File over the last two decades (2000–2019). To show where each attack took place, we mapped our findings. We included only unprovoked shark attacks on our map—meaning the victim was not actively engaging with the shark when the attack occurred. 

Sources 

  1. The University of Miami, “Assessing the Cascading Ecosystem Impacts of Marine Predator Declines as a Result of Overfishing.
  2. Daily Beast, “Sharks Are Creeping into the Northeast Because of Climate Change
  3. Florida Museum, “Annual Risk fo Death During One’s Lifetime
  4. CNN Travel, “How to Survive a Shark Attack

Written by Katie McEntire

Since 2013, Katie has written marketing copy, long-form posts, reviews, and blogs. She began her career as a writer and reviewer with the mission to recommend only the best products for her readers. She’s designed tests, evaluated products, and written reviews on a range of subjects such as appliances, power tools, and software. Today, she applies these research and writing skills on the SafeWise team to explore the world of home, auto, and internet security. Learn more

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