Close encounters with sharks: Why they happen and how to avoid them

Remember that the ocean is the apex predator’s world and we’re just swimming in it
A bull shark inspects a photographer, coming close to the camera, during a shark dive off the coast of Jupiter, Fla., on Feb. 12, 2022. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A bull shark inspects a photographer, coming close to the camera, during a shark dive off the coast of Jupiter, Fla., on Feb. 12, 2022. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The official start of summer is less than two weeks away, but a spate of shark encounters along Florida’s Gulf Coast are reminding swimmers that apex predators aren’t always willing to share their natural habitat.

As the species with higher brain power, it’s incumbent upon humans to smarten up about sharks. (They’re certainly not going to Google “how to stay safe around humans” on our behalf.) The only surefire way to avoid sharks is to stay out of the water. Since people generally don’t or won’t stick to dry land, here are some things to remember about sharks and their behavior:

1. Every week is Shark Week

Sharks and their ancestors have inhabited Florida waters for over 400 million years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “As the top predator in most marine ecosystems, sharks continue to help maintain balance within each ecosystem they inhabit,” the FWRI says. Sharks also use Florida’s coastal areas and bays as nurseries for their pups.

2. Sharks have summer homes, too

“In Florida, sharks typically move inshore and north in the spring and summer, and offshore and south in fall and winter months,” according to the FWRI. “This pattern explains why shark activity is at its peak in Florida waters during April through October, which coincidentally, is also the time humans are more likely to be in the water.”

3. Sharks don’t feast on humans

“Jaws” or “Sharknado” may depict them as bloodthirsty villains, but sharks typically don’t view humans as food. The FWRI points out that shark migrations “are often linked to temperature and the presence of prey such as mullet, sardines, menhaden, and other species of baitfish.” They’re not picky eaters, however, and the reality is that any animal in a shark’s environment may become a potential meal, including other sharks. Florida’s species mostly “feed on fishes or marine invertebrates,” the FWRI says. “Some even feed on plankton, but none see humans as a food source.”

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4. Shark bites are rare

There are over 480 shark species, but only three — the great white, tiger and bull — are responsible for the most fatal unprovoked attacks on humans. “Yet shark bites still remain very rare. Humans are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning in Florida than to be bitten by a shark,” the FWRI points out, adding that “on average worldwide, fewer than 10 people die from shark bites each year.” Of the three shark species known to attack humans, only the bull shark is known to frequent fresh water.

5. Humans pose a real threat to sharks

Sharks are fighting a tough battle simply to stay alive. “The world’s fisheries kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually,” the FWRI reports. “The general biology and life history of most shark species make them extremely vulnerable to overfishing, which is why federal and state regulations protect these valuable resources. Some data show that shark populations are at 20%-30% of the level they were just 25 years ago.”

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission