With the tragic death this year of a British man in waters off Sydney, Australia, making headlines around the world, the focus once again is on whether these majestic animals are a threat to us.


Shark attacks on humans are extremely rare. This recent incident is Sydney's first fatal shark attack in almost 60 years. But, in the unlikely event that you should unexpectedly find yourself sharing the water with a shark, we asked zoologist, broadcaster, writer and BBC Wildlife columnist Mark Carwardine what you should do.
"Over the years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time diving and snorkelling with sharks. But I’ve never been bitten. The likelihood of being harmed by one of the most feared animals on the planet is very small indeed.

"Millions of people paddle, swim, snorkel, dive and surf in the sea every day but, in a typical year, fewer than 100 are bumped, nipped or bitten by sharks. In contrast, 100 to 150 million sharks are killed each year by people.

"It is thought that three species account for more than half of all attacks: the great white, tiger and bull sharks. The vast majority of species have never been implicated in any attack. While a few large sharks will eat people given the chance, and many species bite in self-defence, most attacks are cases of mistaken identity. The shark bites once, typically in poor visibility, realises its error and swims away."

A great white shark swimming
A great white shark swimming. © Ken Kiefer Ken Kiefer 2

How to avoid a shark attack

  1. Don’t wear shiny jewellery or high-contrast or bright colours (yellow, rightly or wrongly, has been dubbed ‘yum-yum yellow’ by shark scientists).
  2. Stay out of the water if bleeding or menstruating.
  3. Snorkel or dive in groups – a shark is more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  4. Keep out of the water during darkness or twilight, when many sharks are more active. Avoid murky water. Sharks can struggle to distinguish between human limbs and natural prey.
  5. Don’t visit New Smyrna Beach, Florida, which has more attacks than anywhere else in the world.

A whale shark swimming in Sogod bay, Southern Leyte, Philippines. © Steve De Neef/VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty

Why are people scared of sharks?

Given how rare shark attacks are – especially compared to many other species – why do shark attacks always make such headlines all over the world? What is behind sharks' bad image? Shark expert, TV presenter and author Steve Backshall told BBC Wildlife, "I think that some of it is down to the fact that the environment they live in is one where we immediately feel vulnerable, we feel out of our depth, out of place, and we feel like any predator there has the edge on us, and it does. They are not of our animal group, they’re not warm-blooded mammals, they don’t have big, dark, warm, welcoming puppy-dog eyes, they’ve got big, scary-looking teeth.

Great white shark breaching
Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) breaching on seal shaped decoy, False Bay, South Africa. © Alessandro De Maddalena Alessandro De Maddalena

"Somebody nearly gets bitten by a shark in Australia and it makes front-page news here in the UK. Someone has a basking shark swimming alongside their paddleboard here in the UK and it makes headline news by playing on all those fears. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any representation of reality and, unfortunately, it’s led to this perception of sharks that is entirely erroneous and which allows us to justify persecuting them and at very best, ignoring their fate.

"We have an inherent fascination for apex predators – for the top-of-the-line predator that is the high end of the evolutionary high watermark, and sharks appear to be that.

"They have super senses, the lateral line that can sense the movement of fish in the water that may already be long gone, from the wake they leave behind. They have the ability to sense the weak electrical fields given off by the moving muscles of their prey. They have an extraordinary olfactory sense, the ability to perceive minute amounts of a different substance many, many times diluted in water. They’re incredibly beautiful, very sleek and streamlined, but also incredibly complex.

"And their presence encompasses the most important and interesting span of time on our planet – at least 400 million years, possibly more like 500 million years. They’ve lived through all the major extinction events, but they could disappear within this one that’s occurring right now. And that is baffling and frustrating and it’s also something that I’ve seen with my own eyes."

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What are the biggest threats to sharks?

Steve Backshall believes that the biggest threat to sharks is our perception of them as deadly killers: "Jaws definitely was the start of it. I think before Jaws, the knowledge of what is a shark was almost nothing. People had probably seen a little bit of sharks from The Silent World and Cousteau but not much else. And then, all of a sudden, this great Hollywood blockbuster comes along, and it defines a lot of people’s perceptions of what a shark is."

Great white shark swimming below ocean surface, Guadalupe Island, Mexico
Great white shark swimming below ocean surface. © Cultura Exclusive/Rodrigo Friscione Cultura Exclusive/Rodrigo Friscione

How can we save sharks?

"This is the only time I would ever give this as an answer to any serious journalistic question, but Instagram," Steve tells us. "I could name probably 10 different people right now, who are big on social media and the only thing they do is sharks and shark conversation. And half of them are just a beautiful-looking person looking like a mermaid-slash-merman, swimming alongside a great white, a tiger, a Caribbean reef shark. They have millions of followers, purely because they show shots of them looking beautiful alongside a shark looking beautiful. And they are changing the minds of an entire generation.

"We are good with stories that are relatively simple and that have a positive potential outcome. We are good with things that have a really strong aesthetic and a strong visual thing that grabs your impact instantly.


"With sharks, you can tell that story in pictures so quickly and so easily and get people onside so easily that I really, honestly believe it is an area that we can make a difference."


Paul McGuinnessEditor of BBC Wildlife and discoverwildlife.com

Paul is the editor of BBC Wildlife and discoverwildlife.com. A highly experienced magazine journalist with over 25 years in publishing, Paul was previously editor of BBC History Revealed and BBC Knowledge.