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July 31, 2013

Yes, they're down there, but shark attacks are quite uncommon

With beach season in full swing, the question inevitably arises: What are the chances of getting attacked by a shark?

In a phrase: Extraordinarily low — though not nonexistent. It is higher in certain parts of the country (Florida tops the list) than in others, and in some places (off Cape Cod) legendary great whites are making a comeback that can be frightening to beachgoers. But is it really worth worrying about a shark strike or considering forgoing an ocean swim as an act of self-preservation?

Let's consider the numbers, courtesy of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Last year, 80 unprovoked shark strikes took place worldwide: Seven resulted in deaths, including one in California. Fifty-three strikes took place in U.S. waters, nearly half of them off Florida.

According to the file's analysis of 2000 data, beachgoers faced a 1-in-2-million chance of dying from drowning and other causes based on visits to East and West Coast beaches. By contrast, they faced a 1-in-11.5-million chance of being attacked by a shark, and less than a 1-in-264-million chance of dying from a shark bite, since just one person died that year in U.S. waters from an attack.

Put another way, more Americans were killed by collapsing sinkholes (16) than sharks (11) between 1990 and 2006, and more by tornadoes (125) than sharks (6) in Florida between 1985 and 2010. (And for all you "Sharknado" fans, those were shark-free tornadoes.)

"Tides and currents kill more people [at the beach] than sharks that kill people," said Gregory Skomal, a shark biologist with Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

But in some parts of the country, the number of shark spottings has risen in recent years. Last year, there were more than 20 confirmed shark sightings at Cape Cod beaches, in areas including its outer beaches and off the mainland, and a 50-year old man was bitten by a shark that scientists believe was a great white. (The swimmer, a Colorado native, was scarred but survived with limbs intact.)

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