A shark attack that killed a surfer off the central California coast this week unnerved beachgoers, but people who study sharks say there is little to worry about.
The attack that killed Francisco Javier Solorio, 39, of Orcutt, Calif., on Tuesday was the first fatal shark attack all year in the United States. A 19-year-old surfer was killed in the same area two years ago.
Great white sharks migrate in the fall from near Hawaii to the California coast to feast in areas where seals and seal lions gather to breed, says Ken Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, maintains the International Shark Attack File.
"As years go, knock on wood, this looks like it's going to be a little bit under our average year for shark attacks," he said. Worldwide, four to five people a year die from shark attacks.
In the USA, the three most dangerous areas are Florida, California and Hawaii.
Florida has a long coastline, warm water and large numbers of tourists, most of whom spend at least some time in the water.
"It's a great place to be a shark, it's a great place to be a human in the water, and it's simply a matter of the odds," Burgess says. From 2000 through 2011, Florida had 281 attacks, four of them fatal. The most common species involved in attacks there is the black tip spinner shark.
Sharks spend their time hunting fish in the surf zone. When they attack humans, Burgess says, "we think it's largely mistaken identity. The humans are splashing, in very turbid water, which are the movements of their normal prey such as fish."
In California, there were 36 attacks from 2000 through 2011; four were fatal.
Another hot spot for shark attacks is Hawaii, where the primary attacker is the tiger shark. From 2000 through 2011, there have been 44 attacks, including one fatality in 2004.
New England is associated with great white shark attacks because of the 1975 movie Jaws. That's not the reality.
This summer, the area had its first shark attack since 1936, says John Mandelman, a shark expert at the New England Aquarium in Boston. On Aug. 3, Christopher Myers, 50, was swimming with his son off Truro, Mass., when a shark bit his lower legs. The attack severed several tendons in his left leg and required 47 stitches, but he survived.
Over the past five years, the region has had an increase in shark sightings, possibly linked to rising gray seal populations, Mandelman says. The seal population had been hunted down to almost nothing, but after the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 it began to rebuild.
Gray seals are a favorite prey for great whites and inhabit some beaches on Cape Code in abundance. "The sharks have finally figured that out" and are once again showing up to hunt, Mandelman says, but there's no reason for humans to fear. "The ocean is the domain of the shark," he says. "It's exceedingly rare for an attack to occur."
"It's like an airplane crash," he says. "When it happens, it's news."
Surfers are the No. 1 shark attack victims. "White sharks tend to attack from below and behind, and they gaze up at the surface looking for silhouettes," Burgess says. A surfboard or a surfer in a black wet suit looks a lot like a seal.
Humans tend to forget that "when we're entering the sea, we're engaging in a wilderness experience," he says.
Humans are far more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to humans, Peterson says. The shark population is under threat because they're hunted for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup in Asia.
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