Just 2,777 unprovoked shark attacks have ever been documented, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). Despite sounding like something out of a disaster movie, the ISAF is a bona fide bit of data, compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History, detailing which countries have seen attacks.
While sightings of sharks off UK coasts are increasing — some 50 were recently spotted circling in shallow inter-tidal waters off the coast of West Sussex — attacks are rare. According to the ISAF, there have only ever been two and neither were fatal.
Other areas of the world however, have seen a spike in shark attacks, notably this year in the Carolinas, USA. It’s unclear exactly what’s attracting sharks into these shallow waters — more swimmers and surfers, water temperature changes — but in July alone there were eight attacks, in contrast to the average two per year. Cage diving and ‘chumming’ (feeding) sharks, notably in South Africa, has also been cited as a possible cause for the increase in attacks, but overall there’s still little chance of being mauled by these shy fish.
If you do encounter a shark, protocol is to keep your distance and swim calmly away if it gets too inquisitive. But if those big gnashers are locked and loaded in your direction, the first thing to do is arm yourself. If, like Mick Fanning, all you’ve got is your fist, then use it in a square punch to the shark’s nose. Do not play dead. Instead try to back up against something solid (rock/boat) to limit your exposed angles and give yourself a better chance of fending it off. Punches, along with scratches to the gills and eyes are your best defence.
Your greatest chance of survival is to make yourself the most irritating lunch the beast has ever encountered.
Shark attack stats by country
1. Continental USA: 1,104 attacks, 35 fatal (most recent fatality, 2012)
2. Australia: 572 attacks, 153 fatal (most recent fatality, 2014)
3. Africa: 346 attacks, 94 fatal (most recent fatality, 2014)
11. Europe: 51 attacks, 27 fatal (most recent fatality, 1974)
Source: International Shark Attack File, 1580-2015. flmnh.ufl.edu
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)