The shark is one creature that strikes terror in the hearts of humans. Shark attacks are dramatic, and these animals are often portrayed as man-eating monsters that feed on human flesh. According to the Shark Research Institute, a non-profit group that tracks and researches shark attacks around the world, sharks kill about 10 people per year. Globally, there are hundreds of attacks with approximately 50 non-fatal attacks per year in the United States alone. Survivors usually suffer severe injuries, including the loss of limbs and disfiguring scars. While sharks have attacked swimmers, underwater photographers, boaters, divers, fishermen and even some would-be shark rescuers, the majority of victims are surfers.

Despite these statistics, scientists maintain that sharks feed on plankton, fish, small marine mammals and occasionally each other, but they don’t necessarily have a taste for humans.  So why do they attack people so often? To answer the question and to help make the world’s waters safer for both humans and sharks, researchers categorize attacks as either provoked or unprovoked.

Provoked Attacks

Shark attack data indicates that the majority of attacks are provoked, that the victim interferes with the shark in some way. Some provocation is intentional, such as a photographer reaching out to a shark or a fisherman cutting a shark loose from a net; some is unintentional, but the consequences are the same. Surfers sometimes accidentally bump sharks, which respond by charging or biting the surfer or the board.

Unprovoked Attacks

Researchers believe that unprovoked attacks are the result of sharks mistaking humans for prey or investigating whether they’re prey or not. When the shark realizes that it’s bitten something other than prey, it lets go. These are referred to as hit-and-run attacks because the shark grabs, releases and leaves. Surfers might not touch the sharks; however, paddling, kicking and splashing stimulate sharks’ senses and trigger a feeding response. The sharks’ natural reaction to whatever is disturbing the water, particularly when they’re actively feeding, is to bite and pull on the prey-like object. Unfortunately, the injuries from a single bite can be devastating; many victims die from blood loss.

Preventing Shark Attacks

According to statistics maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History, a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a shark. However, as long as people continue to venture into the shark’s natural habitat, there will always be a risk. Surfers can minimize the risks by following these safety guidelines:

Surf in groups. Sharks are more likely to attack individuals, so don’t go off on your own.

Don’t surf in the early morning or late afternoon. These are prime feeding times for sharks, so they’ll be hungrier and more likely to investigate potential prey.

Don’t surf when you’re bleeding. Sharks have an extremely keen sense of smell. Even minor cuts and trickles of blood can attract sharks.

Don’t wear shiny object when surfing. Jewelry and other shiny objects reflect light and look like fish to sharks.  

If you are attacked, fight back. Hit it on the nose, eyes or other sensitive areas such as the gill openings. The shark may realize that you’re not prey after all and leave you alone.

While the number of shark attacks is increasing, it doesn’t mean sharks are becoming more aggressive; there are simply more people in the water now than in the past. This presents more opportunities for sharks and people to come into contact with each other. Sharks will probably leave you alone if you’re calm and quiet, but they explore their environment — and potential food sources — by biting and clamping down. You can make yourself less interesting or appealing to sharks by staying out of their feeding and breeding grounds, avoiding things that make you look like prey, and never touching or taunting a shark.