Sharks play an essential rol in the health of our oceans

Information, Research

So what exactly is a ‘shark attack’?

I still remember my astonishment, when a South African surfer told me, he had been involved in shark attacks many times. When asked for the how, where and when, he explained he has seen a shark several times when surfing… That was it. Encounters like these are often included in the number of ‘shark attacks’. But how should we really define a shark attack?

A press shot from the Award Winning Documentary ‘Surfing and Sharks’, for which Peter Verhoog and Georgina Wiersma were advisors

Marine biologists believe that in most cases, the shark has mistaken the swimmer or surfer for a common food source, such as a seal or large fish. Yet despite these cases of mistaken identity, every shark-human incident is called an “attack,” as if it involved malicious or predatory intent.

That is why scientist Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory and Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney in Australia have proposed a new system of classification to support more accurate reporting of shark-human interactions.

The study, published this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, bolsters the argument that the word “attack” is often misleading. Most shark-human encounters occur near shore, and very often involve surfers. Why? The answer is simple. Surfers typically spend more time in the water than swimmers. The longer you spend in the water, the more likely you are to run into a shark.

Surfers and sharks often share the same areas: the surfers look for waves around the inlets and jetties, which are the same places that sharks look for food.

Hueter said that fatal shark attacks are “extremely rare.” For instance: Records show that 11 fatal bites have been recorded over the past 129 years in Florida, vastly fewer than the number of deaths by drowning or lightning strikes. “So we shouldn’t classify the accidental bite of a 2-foot-long shark on a surfer’s toe the same way we would classify the fatal bite of a 15-foot great white shark on a swimmer,” he added.

The scientists have come up with four categories that can be used to describe a wide range of shark incidents:

Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people with no physical contact.

Shark encounters: No bite takes place and no humans are injured, but physical contact occurs with a person or an inanimate object holding a person, such as a surfboard or boat. A shark might also bump a swimmer and its rough skin might cause a minor abrasion.

Shark bites: Bites by small or large sharks that result in minor to moderate injuries.

Fatal shark bites: One or more bites causing fatal injuries. Hueter and Neff cautioned against using the term “shark attack” unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely possible.

A free download of the article is now available at:


When you are surfing, follow the guidelines for safe surfing:




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