Whisper "shark" to any snorkeler or beachgoer and chills will shoot up their spines as the Jaws theme pulses through their heads. The good news for Caribbean travelers, however, is that shark attacks in this region are about as common as earthquakes, says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida.
Since 1997, ISAF has recorded six shark attacks in the Caribbean, compared to 96 in North America and 30 in South Africa. Why the disparity? "A combination of cold and warm waters brings a large variety of sharks to South Africa," says Burgess, "while a tremendous amount of people and year-round good swimming weather in Florida increase the chances of attacks in North America."
The organization, founded by the U.S. Navy in 1958 in response to the numerous shark attacks on sailors during World War II, is now managed by the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. More than 3,200 worldwide shark-attack investigations dating to the mid-1500s are housed at ISAF, says 50-year-old Burgess.
The Bahamas, with its huge amount of coastline and larger tourist and resident populations, has recorded more attacks than any other Caribbean destination - still only 35 since 1896 - while the rest of the region averages less than one attack each year. Florida averages 20 to 30 shark attacks each year.
Burgess says most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity, when sharks confuse swimming humans for bait fish in the poor visibility created by waves breaking along the shore. Unlike California or the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., the Caribbean doesn't usually receive much strong shoreline surf. With less surf comes better visibility and a smaller chance of mistaking a foot for a mullet - which means fewer attacks.
So how can you avoid becoming shark bait without boycotting the water altogether? Safety in numbers is a good idea since sharks are usually frightened by large groups. Also, avoid wearing shiny jewelry and metallic-colored swimsuits since a shark could mistake the sheen for a shimmery fish. If you're snorkeling or diving and see a shark acting aggressively - rubbing its belly on the sea floor, lowering its pectoral fins or swimming erratically - get out of the water. And know that if you spear a fish, your risk for attack escalates because sharks can smell the blood of a wounded fish and detect the struggle from miles away.
"The International Shark Attack File isn't overly concerned about shark attacks in the Caribbean," says Burgess. "On a per capita basis, [the Caribbean] isn't where you'd expect to find attacks."
SEEING IS BELIEVING
To learn the truth about sharks - and to dispel the "mindless killing machine" myth firsthand - simply strap on a tank and join the thousands who safely enjoy shark diving in the Bahamas.
Every day off the coasts of Nassau, Grand Bahama and Walker's Cay, dive operators lead people to places where lots of sharks hang out and take the plunge to get up close and personal with the toothy critters - that is, after professionals jump in the water and spread fish blood and bait all about. And these recreational divers are completely confident they'll come back with all their important parts intact.