Fatality realities: six things you should know about shark attacks
1. Hysteria vs facts
Hysteria about shark attacks bears little relation to the actual risk. Worldwide, there were 98 unprovoked shark attacks last year.
That number was the highest on record, according to the International Shark Attack File, the world's most authoritative source on the phenomenon.
But the record high number does not necessarily mean an increase in the rate of shark attacks. Instead it probably reflects increases in the numbers of humans, and the amount of time they are spending in the sea. If anything, the rate of attack is likely to be declining.
In any case we shouldn't take too much notice of year-on-year variations in shark attack numbers, says George Burgess, curator of the IASF, because the number of humans and sharks together in the water in any one year changes significantly according to weather, ocean and soci-economic conditions.
2. Fatality realities
Out of 98 unprovoked* attacks, there were only only six fatalities. That is a 6.1 per cent fatality rate, which matches the annual average of the previous decade and is "remarkably low" given the billions of human-hours spent in the water each year. But the long term trend over the past century has been for a reduction in fatality rates as beach safety and medical capacity improve along with the public's understanding of how to avoid dangerous situations.
To put the risk of death by shark in perspective, you are 132 times more likely to drown at the beach than be killed by a shark, and 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning. Over 1000 times more people die by cycling every year.
Among the 2015 fatalities, there were one each in the US, Australia, New Caledonia and Egypt, and two in the Reunion Islands, which has had seven deaths in five years, leading to speculation that the risk there could be better managed.
3. Australia vs rest of the world
Globally speaking, Australia is a hot spot for shark attacks, but not as hot a spot as the US.
North American waters had the most unprovoked attacks, with 59 in 2015, including seven in Hawaii. Australia ran a distant second, with 18, followed by South Africa (8), and Reunion (4).
Australia's total of 18 unprovoked attacks was the highest since 2009, when there were 22. Twelve attacks occurred in New South Wales, two in Western Australia, two in Queensland, and single incidents in South Australia and Victoria; the single fatality occurred in New South Wales
4. Swimming vs surfing
You're more likely to be attacked on the water than in it. Nearly half (49 per cent) of the 2015 attacks involved surfers and body boarders. People swimming and wading accounted for 42 per cent of cases, followed by snorkellers (9 per cent). More attacks probably occur on surfers because the surf zone is more commonly frequented by sharks, and because the kicking of feet, splashing of hands and wipe-outs from boards are all activities provocative to sharks, according to the IASF.
5. How not to be shark bait
Don't be alone in the water - sharks are less likely to attack groups. Don't swim at dusk, dawn or in darkness when sharks are most active and have a sensory advantage. To reduce the chances of a shark noticing you, avoid much splashing or sudden movement. Don't let pets in the water with you because their erratic movements attract sharks.
Don't enter the water when bleeding and exercise caution when menstruating - sharks have an acute sense of smell. Avoid wearing bright or contrasting clothing and shiny jewellery, and beware if you have an uneven tan - sharks see contrast particularly well.
Don't swim where school fish are congregating in large numbers, near a river mouth, where the water is dirty or turbid, near deep channels or along drop-offs to deeper water.
6. What to do if attacked
Fight for your life. Playing dead doesn't work, IASF advises, because sharks respect size and power. Hitting a shark on the nose, ideally with a stick or other item, usually makes it back off, but maybe only briefly. "One should try to get out of the water at this time" Burgess said. If a shark actually bites, he suggests clawing at its eyes and gill openings which are sensitive. And get out of the water as quickly as possible, while trying not to splash too much.
*Unprovoked attacks" are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark's natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.