Sharks bit 16 people in unprovoked attacks off Florida’s waters last year, marking the highest reported number of bites than anywhere else in the world.
Florida again had more reported bites than anywhere else on Earth, according to researchers with the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, which documents shark attacks each year.
One of those was the attention-grabbing case in the Florida Keys when a Texas woman punched a shark to set herself free. “I felt like I was in a ‘Jaws’ movie at that moment,” Heather West said at the time.
As in previous years, the U.S. had the highest number of bites, and Florida again made up the most in America. None of Florida’s 16 unprovoked bites was fatal, but two resulted in amputations. Florida made up 39% of bites in the U.S., followed by New York, which had eight bites, or 20%.
The rest of the states where people suffered shark bites in 2022 were Hawaii (5); California and South Carolina (4 each), North Carolina (2) and Texas and Alabama, with one bite each.
Still, the number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide decreased in 2022, tying with 2020 for the fewest number of reported incidents in the last decade, according to the study.
There were 57 unprovoked bites in 2022, most of which happened in the United States and Australia. Of these, five attacks were fatal, down from nine deaths in 2021 and 10 the year prior.
The study noted the reduction in the number of last year’s bites may reflect the documented global decline of shark populations. “Generally speaking, the number of sharks in the world’s oceans has decreased, which may have contributed to recent lulls,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research, said in a prepared statement.
The numbers were indeed higher in previous years. Florida saw 32 attacks in 2016 and 31 attacks in 2017. Historically, unprovoked attacks usually occur in August and September, according to the report. Most of the predators were the bull, blacktip and spinner species of sharks.
The International Shark Attack File focuses on unprovoked bites in its annual report and does not highlight attacks “that may have been prompted by mitigating circumstances, such as fishing lines cast in the direct vicinity of the incident or the presence of chum in the water.” There were 32 additional bites in 2022 that had been intentionally or unintentionally provoked.
Seven of Florida’s 16 attacks last year were in Volusia County, home to beach cities such as Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach. Monroe County, which includes the Keys, had four attacks. Palm Beach, Brevard, Martin, Nassau and Pinellas counties each had one attack.
In the Florida case when the Texan battled the shark for her limbs at the Dry Tortugas National Park near Key West in January 2022, Heather West said at the time: “I knew it was a battle for the foot — and one of us was gonna win, and one of us was gonna lose. And honestly, I didn’t expect that I was gonna be the winner of this.”
She told reporters she tried to kick the shark with her good foot, but her flippers were a hindrance, so she cussed at the shark, and then slammed its face with both fists. That’s when the shark decided to let go.
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West had been bitten by a lemon shark, known to rarely attack humans, according to the study. The incident marked only the 11th known unprovoked attack from this species, researchers say.
The U.S. had only a single unprovoked fatality in 2022 when a snorkeler went missing along Keawakapu Beach in Maui, Hawaii.
Other fatal attacks in 2022 happened in Egypt’s Red Sea, and South Africa. In both countries, two people were killed. The deaths in Egypt happened on the same day less than a mile apart and are thought to have been from the same shark, possibly a tiger shark.
As terrifying as the thought of a shark is, experts say the chances of being bitten by a shark remain “incredibly low.” According to the World Health Organization, drowning is the third-leading cause of accidental death worldwide, and coastal features such as rip tides and strong currents pose a greater risk to beachgoers than sharks.
There are still precautions snorkelers and swimmers can take: The International Shark Attack File recommends removing reflective jewelry before entering the water, don’t swim at dawn or dusk, swim with a buddy, and avoid areas where people are fishing.
What are the odds of being bitten by a shark?
“We’re hesitant to provide stats on the likelihood of being bitten while in the water because there are no reliable estimates for the number of people who visit beaches each year, locally or globally,” said Jerald Pinson, spokesman for the Florida Museum of Natural History. Still, “generally speaking, your risk of being killed by a shark is 1 in 4,332,817. Put another way, you’re 47 times more likely to die from a lightning strike.”