Incidents of people being bitten by sharks are extremely rare. Of the more than 500 known species of shark, only a very few are considered to be potentially dangerous to humans. But it’s often difficult to identify the shark species involved in a bite incident, and in some cases the wrong species is blamed.

The White Shark, Tiger Shark and Bull Shark are most frequently associated with serious bite incidents on humans, although many species will potentially bite if they feel threatened.

Most shark bites happen in tropical coastal waters – in shallow, murky waters where sharks hunt, such as river mouths and off beaches, as well as in places where the sea-floor drops away into deeper water. There have been no unprovoked shark bites in British waters since records began in 1847.


Most media reporting of shark bite incidents - including non-fatal and fatal bites on humans - use highly emotive, often misleading language. As well as contributing little to understanding the shark's behaviour and learning from the incident, such language can also ‘criminalise’ sharks in the mind of the public, with terms such as “man-eater” or “rogue shark” incorrectly implying an intent to target or harm humans.


The traditional view of “provoked” versus “unprovoked” shark bites is no longer as clear cut as it once was. Obviously, cases of divers spearing sharks or attempting to ride them, and fishermen hooking sharks and pulling them into their boats are “provoked” incidents. However, when a swimmer unwittingly passes very close to a shark, the animal’s reaction to a violation of its personal space – a perceived threat common to all wild animals – may result in the shark biting the swimmer. Depending on your perspective, this can be construed as either a provoked or unprovoked incident. Either way, the key is to understand why it happened and work towards reducing the likelihood of it happening again.


These are by far the most common but injuries are seldom life-threatening. They typically occur in the surf zone and primarily involve swimmers and surfers. In most instances these are probably cases of mistaken identity that occur under conditions of poor water visibility. It’s thought that upon biting, the shark quickly realises that the human is not a food source, immediately releases the victim and swims away.


'Bump and bite' and 'sneak' bite incidents, are less common but result in greater injuries and fatalities. These usually involve surfers, divers or swimmers in deeper water, but can 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 repeat bites are not uncommon. It’s thought that these incidents are the result of feeding or hostile behaviour. Most shark bite incidents following sea disasters, such as plane and ship accidents, probably involve 'bump and bite' and 'sneak' incidents.


In general, the number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide has shown a steady increase since 1900. But before authorities introduce culling, netting programmes, drumlines and other kneejerk reactions, this trend must be viewed in context.

40% of the world’s population now live within 100km of a coast - a figure expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. In addition, the popularity of water-sports continues to grow, fuelled by ‘life-style’ marketing and improvements in equipment (wetsuits in particular).

This means that each year, around the world hundreds of thousands more people are entering a wider range of marine environments for longer periods of time - environments which they share with large marine animals: dolphins, seals, whales and, of course, sharks.

While there may be some degree of statistical anomaly, the number of shark bites on humans each year is relative to the number of people entering the water - a figure which, unfortunately, can be expected to increase if current lifestyle and demographic trends continue. This is somewhat ironic given the critically low population levels of many shark species as a result of global overfishing.

There is absolutely no doubt that shark bite incidents are both terrifying and tragic but, in relative terms, the likelihood of being bitten by a shark remains extremely low.

The risk of encountering a shark is lessened further by a better understanding of their behaviour, with early-warning and monitoring programmes offering water-users a greater ability to avoid potentially dangerous situations. And on those occasions when interaction has been unavoidable, the percentage of fatal shark bites relative to the total number of bite incidents continues to fall due to advances in medical treatment.

Related Links:

► For more information & statistics about shark attacks visit the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) website

Creature Feature: White Shark

Banner image © Tom Vierus