You’re more likely to get hurt driving to the beach than you are to get attacked by a shark, said Austin Gallagher, a Northeastern graduate who’s studied sharks for more than a decade.
Yet the fear of sharks surfaces every summer, when news emerges that a swimmer has been wounded by one of these predators.
Gallagher said this fear is misplaced. While it is true that more unprovoked shark attacks occur in the United States that in any other country, that is attributable to the nation’s immense coastline.
“Shark bites on humans are extremely rare events,” said Gallagher, who is the chief executive officer of Beneath the Waves, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving sharks. “They are often the case of mistaken identity. Humans just aren’t on the menu for sharks anywhere in the world.”
Gallagher said that it’s much more likely that a human will kill a shark than a shark will kill a human. And if you’re keeping score, you should know that it’s a mismatch: Fishermen kill 100 million sharks each year.
According to the Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File, 88 unprovoked shark attacks occurred worldwide last year, five of which were fatal. A provoked attack is when a human initiates physical contact with a shark. There were 30 provoked attacks last year, which typically occur when a fisherman is trying to kill one of those 100 million sharks.
“It’s a pretty one-sided case against sharks,” Gallagher said, adding that the population of many shark species is in decline.
When a great white shark does bite a human, Gallagher said, it immediately realizes that it is not biting a seal, thanks to nerve endings in its teeth.
Gallagher said swimmers should stay close to shore and be on the lookout for seals, the natural prey of the great white sharks that stalk New England beaches and the clearest sign that one of the predators could be lurking nearby.
Gallagher has spent many years swimming with sharks, but he’s only been forced to flee the water to escape a shark a few times. The behavior of sharks changes when they’re about to attack, Gallagher said. If you see a shark that suddenly begins swimming frantically and rapidly opening and closing its mouth, it’s time to get out of the water.
“Every time you enter the water, you enter a world where other animals are better adapted than you are and you need to respect that,” Gallagher said.