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 bite incidents into three types:

'Hit & Run' Incidents

By far the most common shark incidents are 'hit and run'. These typically occur in the surf zone, primarily involving swimmers and surfers. The victim seldom sees the shark, which 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 currents). A shark feeding in these conditions must make quick decisions and rapid movements to capture its typical prey items. When the environmental 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. It is thought 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 incidents 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' Incidents

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

'Bump and bite' incidents are characterised by the shark initially circling and often bumping the victim prior to the actual bite.

'Sneak' incidents differ in that the bite occurs without warning. In both cases, unlike the pattern for 'hit and run' incidents, repeat ‘strikes’ are not uncommon and multiple or sustained bites are the norm. Injuries incurred during this type of incident are usually quite severe, frequently resulting in death. It is thought that these types of incident are the result of feeding or antagonistic behaviours rather than being cases of mistaken identity. Most shark bite incidents involving sea disasters, such as plane and ship accidents, probably involve 'bump and bite' and 'sneak' incidents.

Related Links:

About Shark 'Attacks'

Statistics and Victims

How to reduce the chance of being bitten by a shark