It doesn’t take much to cause a panic when it comes to sharks. On Wednesday, two kayakers off the shore of Plymouth had a run-in with a great white shark when the toothy fish took what State Police called an “exploratory bite” of one of their crafts. Essentially, the shark asked “Are you food?” and decided, “No, you’re not.”
Add to that the actual and false sightings in Massachusetts waters this summer, and you’ve got a state full of people quoting “Jaws” and towns shutting down beaches.
The public’s alarm at the recent stories may be understandable at the gut level, but it’s also wildly out of proportion to the actual risk of a shark attack, deadly or otherwise, in Massachusetts.
If our go-to reference point is a work of fiction released in 1975, we don’t really know what we’re talking about when we talk about shark attacks.
The truth is, shark attacks are not a problem in Massachusetts—or pretty much anywhere else in the world.
“We’re all much more likely to die in the car on the way to the beach than to die from a shark attack,” said Simon Thorrold, a shark researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “Way more people are going to drown on Cape Cod than are going to be attacked by a white shark.”
These aren’t the coastal waters off of South Africa or Western Australia, where most reported incidents of death and injuries at the hand of shark interactions take place. And “most” is a subjective term.
In 2013, there were three great white shark-related deaths in South Africa and all of Australia. Globally, there were 10 deaths and 62 injuries in all of 2013. Total. In a world with 7 billion people. And those numbers are actually on the high side when compared to recent years.
What’s the actual risk in Massachusetts? There have been two recorded shark attacks since 1936. There was a fatal attack that year, though the victim, Joseph Troy, could have survived a similar attack today, thanks to medical and transportation advances. In 2012, a shark bit a Colorado man on the leg off the coast of Truro.
But statistics have a hard time standing up to the gut feeling people get when they read about Plymouth’s kayakers or mere sightings off of Duxbury and the outer cape. There have been more shark sighting in Massachusetts thanks to a number of factors, including a rebounding grey seal population, according to Woods Hole marine biologist Gregory Skomal.
“What we’re seeing is the response of a predator to its prey,” said Skomal. “But it doesn’t take many shark attacks to scare the hell out of people.”
At Woods Hole, Thorrold and Skomal have decades of combined experience studying all kinds of sharks, including great whites. And while there has been an increase of white shark sightings in Massachusetts, that hasn’t corresponded with increases in attacks or encounters with most swimmers.
”You’re asking about the danger of a shark attack,” said Skomal. “What we can do is go back to the statistics, and the statistics are weak for white shark attacks in Massachusetts.”
Attacks (categorized as sightings, encounters, bites, and fatal bites, by researchers) are so rare that it’s hard to study effective prevention methods, according to Skomal.
“One thing we’ve learned is there’s no silver bullet,” said Skomal. “Does taking people out of the water for two hours help? We don’t know. Do nets and other equipment help? We don’t know.”
The numbers are the numbers, and they say you have a one-in-700-million chance of being eaten by a shark. But if you want some practical advice about lowering those ridiculously low odds of being bitten or killed by a shark, Thorrold offered a few tips.
“Just be smart. Don’t swim at dawn or dusk,” he said. “That’s when diurnal animals (like seals) are coming into the water, but it’s a lot harder for them to see predators. There are a lot more shadows.”
You should also avoid swimming or kayaking near seals, since seals are to great white sharks what pizza is to a college student.
“Swimming in the ocean has a tiny element of risk that we’re never going to lose if we have a healthy animal population in the ocean,” said Thorrold.
Are great white sharks efficient, lethal killers? Yes, if you’re a seal. Are people on the menu? No.