Shark Attack Myths and Facts… Debunked!

A string of shark attacks in North Carolina has the great sea animals back in the news – and with them, common shark myths and shark urban legends. Individual shark attacks tend to make the news because they tap into our ancient fear of being attacked by an uncontrollable beast, and because they’re rare enough to be noteworthy when they happen. We also just have a fascination with sharks – they’re big, powerful, and pop culture tells us they’re unstoppable.

Unfortunately, shark populations are being decimated around the world. Part of this is for harvesting of their parts for quack alternative medicine cures, but a bigger part is simply that whenever there’s a cluster of attacks, people panic. Even so, shark attacks are incredibly rare, and fatalities from shark attacks are less common than people being killed by lightning or a falling vending machine.

Despite the lethal reputation of sharks, there are things you can do in the unlikely event a shark attacks you. Here are some of the most prevalent myths and facts about shark attacks, what to do, and how often they happen. 

Shark Attacks Are Much More Common Than You Think

FALSE: Shark attacks are actually extremely rare. You are more likely to be struck by lightning or die falling off a roller coaster than to be killed by a shark. In 2005, for example, there were just 58 unprovoked shark attacks, and there were only three shark-related human deaths in 2014. Humans are a much greater danger to sharks, as around 100 million sharks are killed annually by people.

If a Shark Approaches, Play Dead

FALSE: Don’t play dead, especially if the shark has its mouth on you. This does nothing but make the shark think it’s already killed you, and you really don’t want to deal with a shark that thinks it’s got the upper fin – because it will start to eat you. Then you won’t need to bother with playing dead, because you’ll be dead.

Sharks Can Smell Blood

TRUE: Because of their extremely sensitive nostrils and enlarged smell areas in their brains, they have an outstanding ability to pick up the scent of blood. So, if one shark bites you, more are on the way. But this ability is sometimes exaggerated by urban legends and myths (see below).

Punch a Shark in the Nose if It Attacks

TRUE & FALSE: Experts are divided on whether punching a shark in the nose is a good idea or not. Most say it doesn’t work, but there are stories all over the place about surfers who were attacked by sharks, punched them in the nose, and got away. It could be that the person actually fighting back was what spooked the shark, but it’s hard to know for sure.

Thrashing Around Loudly Scares Sharks Off

FALSE: Do the opposite. Thrashing around like a fool will only play into the shark’s strengths, which are its sense of movement and smell. The more noise and movement you make, the higher the chances of the shark figuring out you’re there. You don’t want this. Just calmly move toward the shore.

If a Shark Approaches, Warn Others

TRUE: If you’re in the water and you spot a shark, people need to know about it. Move slowly and calmly toward the shore, shouting to alert people that there’s a shark, so that they can also get out of the water – and help you if you need it.

Attack a Shark’s Gills or Eyes

TRUE: if you can manage it, punching a shark in the eyes or grabbing its gills and pulling hard have a much better chance of making the shark break off its attack. They’re weaker spots, and bigger than the nose, meaning they’re easier to find during the chaos of a .

Sharks Can’t See Well, so Swim at Night to Keep Them Away

FALSE: Sharks don’t have particularly good vision, but they can sense movement extremely well. Since most beaches are empty at night, an individual swimmer will stand out as vulnerable – and sharks hunt at night, dusk, and dawn. This is a bad combination.

All Sharks Are Equally Dangerous

FALSE: Shark attacks primarily are carried out by three species: great white, tiger, and bull sharks. The rest are mostly harmless, and some don’t even have jaws. So it’s probably a good idea to have a basic working knowledge of how to identify sharks if you go swimming in shark-friendly areas.

Sharks Are Attracted to the Bright Colors of Rescue Equipment

TRUE: While sharks don’t have great vision overall, they do see contrast well. So the orange and yellow used in floatation devices, safety gear and rafts stand out to sharks prowling shallow beach waters. That doesn’t mean you should use them, since your chance of drowning is much higher than your chance of a shark attack. But it’s something to be aware of. Also, take your jewelry off when you go beach swimming, since sharks can see the glint of light off of metal.

Great White Sharks Can Smell a Drop of Blood Anywhere in the Ocean

FALSE: Like any good urban legend, there are a number of variations about how much (or little) blood sharks can smell in how much water. Some say a shark can sense a drop of blood anywhere in the ocean, and this is obviously just silly. But sharks do have extremely sensitive nostrils that they use only for smelling, not breathing. So they can detect minute amounts of certain chemicals, like those in oil or blood.

Sharks Mostly Swim at the Water’s Edge

FALSE: They usually only venture to beaches if they sense prey around or if they get lost. You’re much more likely to find sharks in deep murky water, near steep drop-offs in the ocean, at harbor entrances, gaps between sandbars, and in lagoons. So don’t swim in those places.

Marine Life Can Sense a Shark’s Approach

TRUE: Both groups of fish and turtles can tell when sharks are near, and give off signs that humans can read. Fish will often school together or dart around in zig-zagging patterns, while turtles will try to beach themselves. If you see these things happening, get out of the water.

Rogue Sharks Stalk Humans for Flesh

FALSE– An offshoot of 19th century “man-eating predator” myths, this bit of folklore seems to have sprung from Australian surgeon writing in the 1950s. While you might encounter a shark while swimming, you won’t encounter one that’s “developed the taste for flesh.” Because that’s a myth, and it often leads to culling of sharks after lone attacks.

Sharks Don’t Get Cancer

FALSE: This has nothing to do with shark attacks themselves, but the harvesting of sharks for their cartilage in the mistaken belief that it can cure cancer in humans has decimated shark populations – and, in turn, might be making sharks more aggressive. For the record, the urban myth that sharks don’t get cancer started in 1992 with a crackpot book, and was conclusively debunked in subsequent presentations by actual scientists who showed dozens of examples of cancerous tumors in different sharks.