College of Science and Mathematics

Discovery’s Shark Week Returns

Why do shark attacks occur if humans aren't on the menu?

Shark Week is sure to strike fear in millions of swimmers when it returns to Discovery Channel each July. But with the summer beach season in full swing, a Kennesaw State University biology professor says that sharks don’t really want to eat you.

“Humans are not the natural prey of sharks and the chances of you being attacked are almost zero,” says Professor Christopher Sanford, KSU’s resident shark expert and chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology.

So, who is more likely to get attacked by a shark and why?

There is no easy answer to why humans are attacked, Sanford says.

“What I can tell you is sharks don’t naturally eat people. That’s a misconception. It’s probably a case of mistaken identity and opportunistic encounters between humans and sharks.”

Christopher Sanford, resident shark expert and chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology

Unlike Hollywood’s sensationalized view on Great Whites, Sanford explains that sharks could mistake someone on a surfboard or a swimmer in a wet suit for a seal, which is their natural prey. He believes that most attacks are the result of exploratory bites, and so once the shark has bitten, they will leave once they realize what they have bitten is not a marine animal. 

And most people attacked by sharks survive, the biologist notes.

Where do most shark attacks occur and why?

Interestingly, most shark attacks occur in less than 5 feet of water and 100 feet from the shore, Sanford says. 

“Don’t assume just because you are in shallow water that you are safe,” he cautions. “If there are people fishing nearby, be aware that there is a possibility that predators might be taking advantage, and when sharks have been sighted, swim at your own risk.”  

What can swimmers do to minimize the risk of attack?

Sharks tend to feed more during early morning or late evening, so Sanford warns swimmers to avoid those times, particularly when sharks are known to be in the vicinity. He also suggests that if you are cut and bleeding, you should leave the water.

“Sharks do have a keen sense of smell,” he says. “If there are shark prey around, for example, you may see schools of small fish jumping and there is a good possibility that a predator may be close, so beware.” 

What should you do if you’re attacked? Even though the odds are slim, Sanford explains that if you are attacked by a shark and have the opportunity to fight back— go for the shark’s sensitive areas such as the gills or eyes. While his advice may sound more like a movie scene than practical strategy, it could save your life this summer.

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