Sharks come silently, without warning. There are three ways they strike: the hit-and-run, the bump-and-bite and the sneak attack. The hit-and-run is the most common. The shark may see the sole of a swimmer's foot, think it's a fish and take a bite before realizing this isn't its usual prey. It swims away, leaving the bleeding victim in need of stitches. The bump-and-bite is far more serious. Last year Chuck Anderson was training for a triathlon off Gulf Shores, Ala., when he was bumped by a bull shark, testing whether he was preyworthy. It decided that he was and then repeatedly attacked Anderson. He lost an arm.
Then there's the sneak attack. The shark is in the right place to find its prey, it is the right time to feed, and the target is the right size. At sunset on July 6 off Pensacola, Fla., Jessie Arbogast, 8, apparently fit the needs of a bull shark. Dusk is one of the shark's feeding periods; the boy was in the shallow water where the bull prowls; and splashing about, Jessie may have seemed to be a large fish. The shark pounced. The ensuing attack and the boy's struggle to survive have stirred an inchoate fascination part fancy, part dread with nature's sleekest predator.
Suddenly reports of shark attacks or what people thought were shark attacks began to come in from all around the U.S. On July 15 a surfer was apparently bitten on the leg a few miles from the site of Jessie's attack. The next day another surfer was attacked off San Diego. Then a lifeguard on Long Island, N.Y., was bitten by what some thought was a thresher shark. Last Wednesday a 12-ft. tiger shark chased spear fishers in Hawaii. News crews stood on the sand to interview experts, who declared over and over that sharks killed only 10 people worldwide in 2000. But don't swim at dusk or dawn; avoid murky water and steep drop-offs; shed all jewelry. And do swimsuits in yellow "yum-yum yellow" attract sharks? No one was sure. Sharks don't give interviews.
Shark attacks have been on the rise in recent years. But for all the terror they stir, the numbers remain minuscule. Worldwide, there were 79 unprovoked attacks last year, compared with 58 in 1999 and 54 the year before. Two-thirds were in U.S. waters. The higher numbers may reflect more surfers, boogie-boarders and open-water swimmers more people splashing around, hence more attacks. Volusia County, Fla., holds the state record for attacks because its long coastline and many beaches are increasingly packed with bathers from the booming cities of central Florida.
Humans are much more dangerous to sharks, which tend to end up in soup or medicine. Fishing nets tangle and drown about 100 million sharks each year. In California there is only one shark attack for every 1 million surfing days, according to the Surfrider Foundation. You are 30 times as likely to be killed by lightning. Poorly wired Christmas trees claim more victims than sharks, according to Australian researchers. And dogs man's best friends bite many thousands more people than sharks do.