Should Beachgoers Be Worried About Rising Shark Attacks? An Expert Weighs In

When sharks attack people, it often makes international news, and shark attacks are (ever so slightly) on the rise. The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) is a database compiled by the University of Florida that tracks shark bites around the world, and it found that in 2023, there were "69 unprovoked shark bites on humans" and 10 deaths from shark bites. This is six more bites and four more fatalities when compared to the five-year average between 2018 and 2022. The U.S. came in first with three dozen shark attacks, followed by Australia with 15.


That rise in attacks (or the very possibility of an attack at all) could set alarm bells ringing for some vacationers. Islands spoke to Liv Dixon, a marine biologist and ocean advocate — who will also be appearing on Discovery's Shark Week 2024 —  to find out what people need to understand when it comes to shark attacks. Of course, Dixon understands why people might be nervous when hearing about shark attacks, but she confirmed that it's a pretty unlikely occurrence. In fact, Dixon told us that "more people are killed every year taking a selfie than by sharks."

Shark populations are healthier but we aren't on the menu

Dixon, who specializes in the movement patterns of large sharks, told us that the apparent increased attack rates could actually be attributed to healthier shark populations, which translates to healthier oceans. "Blacktips and bull sharks [in Florida] are recovering and coming closer to shore, which can lead to more interactions with humans," Dixon said. When you combine that with more people going to the beach during the summer, it makes sense that there could be an increased chance of having an encounter. Dixon also said that "increased documentation through smartphones, drones, and social media means that more incidents are being reported and shared than ever before."


As such, Dixon said it's "natural to have concerns." But sharks actually aren't all that interested in people, much less eating them. "Sharks do not view humans as a primary food source because we lack the nutritional value that their preferred prey, like seals or fish, provide," Dixon noted. But sometimes, we might act like prey in the water, which can pique a shark's interest, so it's important to be aware of the things that attract sharks when swimming and snorkeling. "For example," Dixon explained, "splashing in the water can mimic a struggling fish or surfing in the waves can mimic the movements of a seal, leading to a shark investigating us out of curiosity. In most cases, once the shark realizes we're not its preferred prey, it will swim away."


Learning more about sharks will help keep you at ease in the water

Shark attacks on humans are rare, but they can and do happen. Dixon told us that you can help yourself feel more confident in the water by doing a bit of research on sharks. "Learn about the peak shark seasons and avoid swimming in known hotspots or areas where sharks are commonly found," she said. You should also consider the time of day when getting into the water. "Avoid swimming during dusk or dawn, as these are times when sharks are most active and hunting," Dixon noted.


If you're heading to places where you know you'll be swimming with sharks, Dixon recommends donning a snorkel and mask. That way, you can more easily "keep an eye on your surroundings while you swim," Dixon explained. "In the rare event that you spot a shark, you can observe its behavior to determine whether it's safe to stay in the water or if you should exit calmly and smoothly." 

Knowing what to do depends on understanding shark behavior. "For example," Dixon told us, "signs of a potentially aggressive shark include sudden, sharp turns, pectoral fins pointing downward in a triangle shape, and an arched back with the head pointing downward." One great way to easily learn more about shark behavior and get a chance to see Dixon at work is to tune into Shark Week 2024.


Shark Week starts Sunday, July 7th on Discovery, and will stream on Max.