Fatal shark attacks doubled over the last 12 months, a new report has revealed, occurring in holiday hotspots such as California, Florida, Mexico and Egypt.
Ten unprovoked attacks proved fatal in 2023 – up from five the previous year – with a ‘disproportionate’ number occurring in Australia, according to the findings.
There was also an overall increase in the number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide last year, reveals the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File (ISAF).
The findings were described as ‘unnerving’ by shark experts, who noted the number of recorded great white shark bites have increased ‘precipitously’ over the last few decades.
But the research team believe the pattern isn’t due to increased aggression from sharks, but rather a combination of more people being in the ocean each year and a stronger emphasis placed on reporting bites and fatalities.
ISAF, a scientific database of global shark attacks, confirmed a total of 69 unprovoked bites in 2023.
Experts say that although the number is higher than the most recent five-year average of 63 attacks, the data remain ‘consistent’ with long-term trends.
Australia accounted for 22% of all attacks in 2023, and 40% of fatalities.
There were also two confirmed deaths in the US, and one each in the Bahamas, Egypt, Mexico and New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific.
Other confirmed, non-fatal bites occurred in Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, New Zealand, Seychelles, Turks and Caicos, the Galápagos Islands and South Africa.
Dr Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research programme, said: ‘This is within the range of the normal number of bites, though the fatalities are a bit unnerving this year.’
Which sharks kill humans?
First things first. Sharks do not actively seek out humans for lunch. When sharks attack, it is almost always a case of mistaken identity.
Most shark attacks are known as ‘test bites’, and once the shark realise the human isn’t a seal or whatever else if fancied, they will swim off.
However, the most common species behind shark bites are great whites, tiger and bull sharks.
Less commonly, shortfin mako and oceanic whitetip sharks have also been involved in fatal attacks.
And remember, humans kill around 100 million sharks every year, often for shark fin soup, in which the animal’s dorsal fin is sliced off and the fish thrown back in the sea, where it cannot survive.
Read more: What types of sharks do you get in the UK and how dangerous are they?
The US had 36 unprovoked attacks, accounting for 52% of the worldwide total. Of those, two – one in California and another in Hawaii – were fatal.
As in previous years, Florida had more shark attacks than any other state, with 16.
While ISAF documents and investigates all bites on humans by sharks, the annual report focuses primarily on unprovoked attacks.
They are defined as any instance in which a shark is in its natural habitat and attacks without any human provocation.
ISAF’s records include an additional 22 attacks last year that were intentionally or unintentionally provoked.
The most common victim activity at the time of provoked attacks was spearfishing.
‘We’re biologists, and we want to understand the natural behaviour of the animals – not the unnatural behaviour,’ said Dr Naylor.
Three fatalities in 2023 occurred at one remote surfing destination off the coast of Southern Australia.
The Eyre Peninsula is known for its wild, untamed beaches and phenomenal surf breaks, and despite being challenging to access and navigate, it is an alluring spot for surfers.
The region is home to seal colonies and a high density of great whites, known simply as white sharks in science.
How to reduce your risk of a shark attack
- Swim with a friend
- Stay close to shore
- Don’t swim at dawn or dusk
- Don’t swim around schools of fish or where people are fishing
- Avoid wearing jewellery – the reflected light may resemble the sheen of fish scales to a shark
- Avoid excessive splashing
Dr Naylor said: ‘If a white shark is going after a seal and the seal knows it, the white shark hasn’t got a chance.
‘Seals are really agile, so the only ones that get caught are the ones that are goofing off and flopping around on the surface minding their own business.
‘And that’s kind of what a surfer looks like.’
Surfers were the victims of 42% of shark bites worldwide last year, with swimmers and waders second at 39%.
Australia, in addition to its white shark populations on the coast, also has bull sharks in and around its rivers. A fatality from a bull shark attack occurred early last year in a river near the coast.
The vast majority of unprovoked attacks are test bites – which occur when a shark misidentifies a human as their preferred prey, according to the findings.
When that happens, the shark will typically swim away after a single bite.
But some species – such as white sharks and tiger sharks – are so big that even a single bite can prove fatal.
One of the fatal attacks involved a tiger shark off the banks of the Red Sea in Egypt.
Joe Miguez, a doctoral student in the Florida Programme for Shark Research, said: ‘The bite in Egypt stood out because a video shows a tiger shark taking multiple passes at a human in the water.
‘Even though predation events are exceedingly rare, it’s pretty clear that’s what it was.’
But, despite the increase, the researchers say that the number of bites and fatalities that occurred in 2023 are within the average for the last decade.
Each year, there are consistently fewer than 100 unprovoked bites, making it more likely for someone to win the lottery than to be attacked by a shark.
Most shark attacks occur during the Northern and Southern hemispheres’ summers, when many species are more active and when more people spend time in the water.
Last year’s tally included the first known shark attack in New York City in more than 50 years.
But Dr Naylor added: ‘It causes a lot of fear, but the reality is you’re putting a lot of people in the water on a hot day with bait fish in the water.’
While the odds of being bitten by a shark are ‘incredibly’ low, ISAF recommends bathers should stay close to shore, not swim at dawn or dusk, and avoid excessive splashing.
Get your need-to-know
latest news, feel-good stories, analysis and more