Shark attacks are on the rise, but the numbers don't tell the whole story.
The 35-year-old was paddling out one morning in August 2020 while surfing off the coast of Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia, when she was struck by a 2.5-meter juvenile great white shark. It knocked her off her board and clamped down on her leg three times, readjusting its hold.
She felt a piercing pain and then extreme pain, as though she had been "bitten by a puppy." The shark seemed to be "gnawing" on her like a dog with a treat, and it only gave up when her partner, Mark Rapley, rained down blows on its head. He later described the sensation as "punching a ball of muscle."
Rapley and others pulled Doyle up the sand, using her surfboard as a stretcher and the leash as a tourniquet, despite her blood making it slick.
One of the Many Cases
Six months later, Doyle, an environmental scientist, raises her leg and points to the spot on her knee and calf where the shark bit her, leaving an outstanding teeth-shaped scar. She now has no sensation below the leg, but she survived, and not everyone who was bitten by a shark in 2020 did. Last year, Australia experienced the highest annual death toll in 90 years, with eight deadly attacks. Teenage surfers, spear hunters, and veteran divers were among the casualties. The overall annual death toll has been one for the past half-century.
What really is going on? Are sharks now swarming the waters off the coast of Australia? Have the ocean's apex predators been more dangerous in any way?
Rising Cases of Shark Attacks
According to Culum Brown, a fish behavior professor at Sydney's Macquarie University, the main figure is that the cumulative number of shark bites in 2020 - non-fatal and fatal - was 26, which is around average for recent years. (There have been six so far in 2021.) "It's not the number of encounters that's odd, nor the number of people that died. And deaths are largely determined by when you are bitten and how close you are to receiving assistance."
Unlike crocodiles, sharks seldom consume the humans they kill; death is nearly caused by blood loss. In the ocean today, there are more swimmers, fishermen, surfers, and spearfishers than ever before. More Australians live by the ocean, and beaches are more available. People are venturing further into the ocean or to more secluded locations, increasing their chances of meeting sharks. And if you're bitten on the chest or upper thigh in a remote area, the odds of survival tend to look bleak.
Mitigation strategies, even though they are not the most productive use of energy, may be useful. Brown believes that "hybrid drones" - a cross between a mini-helicopter and a blimp - hovering over beaches, identifying sharks, and alerting beachgoers are the safest choice. Non-lethal drum lines in New South Wales and Western Australia help track animals and learn about their behavior.
Personal deterrents, which are cables attached to devices worn around the ankle or hip, are available. While most are unreliable, those that employ an electric current will discourage an approaching shark 60% of the time. There's also a new kind of neoprene that's even tougher than traditional wetsuit fabric. It lessens the severity of a bite, which means it can help prevent blood loss.
When officials use more drones, Brown expects that "sharks are swimming past surfers and swimmers on just about every beach, all over Australia." We'll remember sharks are still there. Now, I believe it would briefly frighten people, but they will ultimately realize that nothing happens the vast majority of the time."
A Warning Sign
It's definitely a wake-up call. For others, though, it might not be enough. In the case, that lightning - or, rather, a series of strong jaws and needle-sharp teeth - attacks, shark shields, and new-fangled neoprene will have to suffice for the time being.
Even if the high fatality rate may be attributed to poor luck by being trapped too far from help, there is one worrying long-term fact to consider: the total number of shark bites in Australia is on the rise. Compared to previous decades, the overall number of bites - both fatal and non-fatal - has increased. According to the Australian Shark Attack File, 82 confirmed shark attacks in Australia during the 1990s. 161 in the 2000s. In the 2010s, that was 220. While reporting has increased, this still accounts for a portion of the increase.
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