Feb. 15, 2008 -- Unprovoked shark attacks killed one person worldwide in 2007, a 20-year low.
That's according to the International Shark Attack File, a project of the Florida Museum of National History at the University of Florida.
"Fatalities are a rarity as a result of shark attacks," says George Burgess, MS, curator of the International Shark Attack File.
"Each decade in the 20th century had a lower fatality rate than the prior one," Burgess tells WebMD. "This decade promises to be lower than the 1990s, as well."
He credits better emergency medical care, beach safety, and public awareness for that trend, which counters a rise in the number of shark attacks.
Shark Attacks Up
There were 71 unprovoked shark attacks in 2007, up from 63 in 2006.
"This decade, we're going to have more attacks than the previous one, which is a no-brainer considering the pattern of population growth, which has not slowed down," Burgess says.
In other words, more people living near an ocean means more chances for shark attacks.
"But you can't predict environmental and meteorological and oceanic conditions, and you can't predict the economy on a world basis," Burgess says. "And all of those influence whether sharks and humans get together."
Shark Attack Death
Last year's lone fatality occurred in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The victim was a nurse who had been working as a contractor in New Caledonia.
On vacation, the nurse and a friend were skin diving in "fairly shallow water" and were apart but in sight of each other when the shark attacked, Burgess says.
The nurse's companion "saw her suddenly struggling with the shark attacking her and she succumbed to her injuries," Burgess says. "We're still investigating the species of shark involved, but there's some conjecture at this point that it might be a white shark."
Shark Attack Prevention
On the Florida Museum of Natural History's web site, Burgess provides the following tips to help prevent shark attacks:
- Stay in groups.
- Stay close to shore.
- Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours, when sharks are most active.
- Don't go into the water if you're bleeding or menstruating.
- Don't wear shiny jewelry in the water. The reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
- Use extra caution in murky waters and avoid uneven tanning and bright-colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Refrain from excess splashing and don't allow pets in the water.
- Be careful in areas between sandbars or near steep drop-offs in the shore's floor. Those are favorite shark hangouts.
- Don't get in the water if sharks are known to be present.
- Get out of the water if sharks are seen there.
- Don't harass a shark if you see one.
If you come face to face with a shark, Burgess advises hitting the tip of its nose, using an inanimate object such as a camera if you happen to have one with you. The shark should retreat, which is your chance to get out of the water as quickly and as smoothly as possible, keeping an eye on the shark the whole time.
"If a shark actually gets you in its mouth, I advise [you] to be as aggressively defensive as you are able. 'Playing dead' does not work," Burgess says on the museum's web site. He recommends clawing at the shark's eyes and gill openings, which are sensitive areas.
"Once released, do all you can to exit the water as quickly as possible, because with your blood in the water, the shark could very well return for a repeat attack," Burgess says.