Shark Attack - Incidents and Motives
Tiger Shark © Jackie Reid.

The phrase 'shark attack' suggests that sharks are intentionally targeting humans to kill and eat. However the majority of shark bites are almost certainly mistakes. The International Shark Attack File breaks down unprovoked shark attacks into three types:

'Hit & Run' Shark Attacks

By far the most common shark attacks are 'hit and run'. These typically occur in the surf zone with swimmers and surfers the normal targets. The victim seldom sees its attacker and the shark does not return after inflicting a single bite or slash wound. In most instances, these probably are cases of mistaken identity that occur under conditions of poor water visibility and a harsh physical environment (breaking surf and strong wash/current conditions). A feeding shark in this habitat must make quick decisions and rapid movements to capture its traditional food items. When these difficult physical conditions are considered in conjunction with provocative human appearance and activities associated with aquatic recreation (splashing, shiny jewellery, contrasting coloured swimsuits, contrasting tanning, especially involving the soles of the feet), it is not surprising that sharks might occasionally misinterpret a human for its normal prey. We suspect that upon biting, the shark quickly realises that the human is a foreign object, or that it is too large, and immediately releases the victim and does not return. Some of these attacks could also be related to social behaviours unrelated to feeding, such as dominance behaviours seen in many land animals. Injuries to "hit and run" victims are usually confined to relatively small lacerations, often on the leg below the knee, and are seldom life-threatening.

'Bump & Bite' and 'Sneak' Shark Attacks

'Bump and bite' attacks and 'sneak' attacks, while less common, result in greater injuries and most fatalities. These types of attack usually involve divers or swimmers in somewhat deeper waters, but occur in near shore shallows in some areas of the world.

'Bump and bite' attacks are characterized by the shark initially circling and often bumping the victim prior to the actual attack. 'Sneak' attacks differ in having the strike occur without warning. In both cases, unlike the pattern for 'hit and run' attacks, repeat attacks are not uncommon and multiple or sustained bites are the norm. Injuries incurred during this type of attack are usually quite severe, frequently resulting in death. We believe these types of attack are the result of feeding or antagonistic behaviours rather than being cases of mistaken identity. Most shark attacks involving sea disasters, such as plane and ship accidents, probably involve 'bump and bite' and 'sneak' attacks.

Related Links:

About Shark Attacks

Statistics and Victims

How to Reduce the Chance of a Shark Attack