Shark Info Logo

Shark Info   (11-15-1998)



Shark Accidents or Shark Attacks? 1/2

Shark Info

  Main article:

Shark attacks - an ever intriguing puzzle

Dr. E. K. Ritter

  Article 1:

Shark attacks in the Mediterranean

Ian K. Fergusson

  Article 2:

How much do you know about sharks and shark accidents?

Shark Info

Shark attacks in the Mediterranean

By Ian K. Fergusson

Even the slightest hint of a shark attack in the Mediterranean surprises - even horrifies - the many millions of people who visit this region every year. From a biological and historical aspect, the fact that sharks in the region bite at an almost abnormal minimum frequency of only 0.42 cases annually should not surprise anyone. The only surprise is the low frequency of attacks.

The existence of approximately 46 different species of sharks in the Mediterranean - 16 of them measuring three or more meters in length, and 15 being potentially dangerous species - makes the occasional encounter between humans and these animals in the most frequented and most travelled sea unavoidable. Although the Mediterranean barely makes up 0.7% of the world's total water surface, the amount of people seeking rest and relaxation there, in addition to those seeking to make a living, is enormous and in no way compares to its relative geographical surface area.

History as well points to the risk of sharks in the Mediterranean. As with so many things which mirror the interaction between people, animals and the environment, the first mention of shark attacks does not stem from tropical beaches skirted by palm trees, but rather from the cradle of civilization: the Mediterranean. Although mentioned for the first time by old Greek historians many years before Christ's birth, only recently did shark accidents awaken enormous interest of the media and of purpose-oriented science. Unfortunately, such reports were simultaneously imposed with an unfounded taboo or often described with great exaggeration based on false information. These negative aspects are all the more apparent in the countries of the Mediterranean Sea where earning a living through tourism prevented any type of rational attitude towards shark attacks or sharks themselves.

In this article I shall try to examine this generally emotional theme of "shark attacks" based on facts and proof. I hope that as a result the minimum risk of being attacked by a shark in the Mediterranean will be approached against an improved background and characterized by more rational thinking.

Let's begin with the scant information about human-shark interactions published in this densely populated region of the world. As described in the classical, partly scientific book "Shark and Survival" from Schultz & Malin, the "Shark Attack File" (SAF) originally compiled under the supervision of the U.S. Navy includes very incomplete data on shark attacks in the Mediterranean region for the time period between 1862 and 1963. Although, as already mentioned, descriptions of shark attacks in this region were already found in ancient literature, very few publications exist on human-shark interactions in this region. Due to this fact, and because national financing was cut in the year 1965, the possibility of gathering data outside of the U.S., and especially in non-English-speaking countries, was greatly limited since the SAF barely had any available data on shark accidents up until 1990.

Adjusing the jaws

This shark's behavior is not meant to be threatening, it is simply his way of readjusting his jaws after his meal!

© Shark info

Many decades before, in the year 1901, the Sicilian scientists Dr. M. Condorelli and Dr. G. Perrando described the catch of a 4.5 m female white shark off the coast of Capo San Croce, near Augusta in eastern Sicily. They then published results of a medical investigation performed on the remains of three corpses found in the animal's stomach. In 1960 the famous Italian fish expert, Georgio Bini, investigated the attack of a white shark on the scuba diver, Goffredo Lombardo, who was harpooning fish off the coast of San Felice Circeo, Terracina in western Italy. Lombardo was left unharmed. In 1976, at a time when the money-spinner film "JAWS" was causing shark hysteria, the manta specialist, Christian Capapć and his colleagues, described the potential danger of shark attacks off the Tunisian coast and reported on the attack of a spear fisher off Bechateur near Bizerte. Only recently, in 1996, did I publish some comments on encounters between humans and white sharks in this region as part of a longer paper on the appearance and biology of this species in the Mediterranean.

In order to find additional published and scientifically sound facts on shark attacks in the Mediterranean region to supplement the above accounts, even the most diligent of all scholars in the area of shark behavior would have to go back to very early times. However, the trashy weeklies of the region did report on a greater number of additional encounters, several of which are described in Giudici & Fino's book published in 1989 "Squali del Mediterraneo".

It is worthwhile briefly delving into more detail on the increasing media popularity of the theme "sharks in the Mediterranean". Perhaps the most notable attack in this region which won worldwide media attention was the puzzling death of the scuba diver, Luciano Costanzo. It was quite obvious that he died as a result of an unprovoked attack of a white shark on February 2, 1989, in the Golf of Baratti near Piombino on the Toscana coast in Italy. This single incident repeatedly turned up in the media and was even published with four-colored prints in such normally conservative magazines as the "Times" in London. In fact, "bloody" headlines appeared overall in Europe. The general increased interest of the worldwide media in the white shark has in turn resulted in more attention being given to this species in the Mediterranean - including the rare attacks on swimmers and boats.
In September 1998, shortly before this article was published, a very large white shark (approx. 5.5 m in length) was filmed with a video camera from a sport fishing boat 35 km off the coast of Senigallia as it swam along the Italian Adriatic seacoast. This encounter was described and published under the description "shark attack". In reality, however, a hungry white shark tried to snatch a caught and already dead shark right from under the nose of an inattentive fisher.

Paradoxically, the journalists completely ignored the unique fact highlighting this shark report, namely that it was the first white shark ever to be filmed alive in the Mediterranean. For producers of animal documentaries, this was, however, an important theme so they hurried to obtain the film rights. It's worthwhile providing some background information on this particular case, for in the past decades, mostly between August and September, white sharks had already been observed in the same region off the Adriatic coast: For example, in 1989 a large animal - called Willie - was repeatedly seen in the waters off Rimini; in 1986 a sport boat was attacked in the Po delta; in 1977 a scientific platform off Venice was rammed in a strange way; and in Riccione in 1986 an Austrian spear fisherman was attacked and injured. Despite these historically based facts many reports describe - somewhat awkwardly - the 1998 filmed white shark as "the first white shark sighted in Adriatic waters". So much for researching facts.

I have to ask myself, why most discussions on shark attacks in the Mediterranean - or in reality only encounters with white sharks - are accompanied by so much false information? Perhaps one of the main reasons is the nonexistence of any reliable printed list of shark attacks in the region and that such information is not available to journalists or to most shark scientists. In other regions marked by more frequent shark attacks - such as California, Florida, South Africa or Australia - there are institutions which continually update the reported encounters. These indexes typically fall under the patronage of the ISAF (the International Shark Attack File) which emerged from the U.S. Navy SAF Databank.

The previously mentioned situation in the Mediterranean is, however, in the process of changing. In the past years the MEDSAF (the Mediterranean Shark Attack File) developed as a branch of the ISAF and is a joint cooperative effort of various shark scientists in the region and in particular in Italy. The MEDSAF office is located at SHARK TRUST - a nonprofit animal protection organization in England - and is currently being run by myself. The continual updating of its databank is also aimed at expanding investigations of shark attacks in the region, the same work which is already being carried out in other areas of the world. The development of this databank is very compatible with the goals of SHARK TRUST. In the end, both the general public as well as the sharks from the region shall both benefit from the publication of such statistics which prove the surprisingly small risk of shark accidents in the Mediterranean.

At this point - and contrary to any expressed suspicions which may point to a conspiracy, such as the underlying, implied comments made in Alex MacCormick's book "Shark Attacks" - we wish to clearly state that neither the ISAF nor the MEDSAF hide any statistics on shark attacks in the Mediterranean from any persons who make inquiries with good intentions. Based on my own experience I can clearly say that no indications exist to prove that shark attacks in the Mediterranean region are purposely being kept secret in those countries in whose territorial waters they may have occurred simply to prevent their being published on a too broad basis. On the contrary, public offices have been of great assistance in managing and correcting the current MEDSAF Databank.

These are the facts:

Up until the time this article was written, 60 cases of shark attacks on people or against boats (including canoes) have been registered with the MEDAF in the Mediterranean since 1899. The individual cases can be divided into the following described subcategories:

Unprovoked interactions resulting in injuries to swimmers/divers

This category delivers the most important statistics for comparing the relative danger of shark accidents with swimmers/divers in various regions of the world. Although earlier databanks, such as the one from Schultz & Malin dating back to 1963, seriously underrated the actual number of reliably confirmed events in the Mediterranean area, the total number is very low compared to the millions of people who annually swam and dived in the Mediterranean since 1899. The last accident which resulted in a bodily injury occurred on September 3, 1993, 200 m off the coast of Playa de les Arenes, a beach near Valencia (Catalonia) on the Spanish coast of Costa Blanca. The victim, a local resident who swam regularly on this beach, was attacked on the surface of the water by a small shark whose species he could not identify, and suffered an injured left toe in the process. Later he described the shark as "slender, black" and about 2 m long. Remember: the last fatal accident in the Mediterranean is the much cited case of the Italian diver, Luciano Costanzo, which dates back to February 1989.

Close up

Precise knowledge on the behavior of individual shark species allows their close observation. (This shot was taken from a distance of about 1 m using a 15mm lens).

© Shark info

During the last decade the attacks on surfers in warmer waters increased worldwide and mainly involved the white shark (Carachordon carcharias). Many scientific commentators explain the accidents as follows: the sharks mistook surfers on their boards with natural prey (seals and sea lions). However, seen globally, this theory could simply be only a very rough simplification. Seals are extremely rare in the Mediterranean, plus there is nothing to indicate that the isolated individuals of monk seals found in the Mediterranean are also hunted by white sharks. Still, a recent attack on a surfer in the Mediterranean shows that the white shark's interest in surfboards and similar items, or in objects floating on the surface of the water, is not limited to regions where seals are their main prey. On June 6, 1989, at 3.30 p.m., off the coast of Marinella near Marina di Carrara (Toscana) in northwesten Italy, the local surfer, Ezio Bocedi, was injured on his right thigh by a 3 m long shark - most likely a white shark. Bocedi had been laying on his surfboard and reading when in order to urinate he dipped the lower part of his body into the water. It's unclear if the shark was attracted by his urinating, but Bocedi himself does not believe so because before that he saw the animal approach and then circle the board for several seconds. He thus suggested that the animal's curiosity was already aroused through previous visual impressions.

Air/sea catastrophes, such as the sinking of ships or plane crashes, have for a long time been considered an absolute byword for shark danger, and this especially in the Pacific during the World War II. In the year 492 before Christ, Herodot described the first case of a shark attacking a shipwrecked sailor during the destruction of the Persian fleet off the coast of Athos, Greece. However, despite intense ship and air activities in the Mediterranean during World War II, shark attacks remained surprisingly rare. In August 1943 the U.S. pilot Leutenant R. Kurtz was forced to crash land his machine about 65 km south of Naples following an air raid on the city and on his return journey. As he waited to be rescued he was repeatedly bitten by several sharks and suffered injuries on both hands and arms. Undoubtedly, any additional similar cases remained unidentified against the chaotic background of the war.

Encounters of sharks with swimmers and divers not resulting in injuries

Six cases are currently registered under this category. The most recent one took place on June 15, 1983 near Riomaggiore (Italy), where the scuba diver Roberto Piaviali was molested by a 3-meter long aggressive white shark while diving 5 meters down. Piaviali fled to the next submersible where the shark was driven away with wooden poles.

This category of attacks must be given special circumspection when it comes to deciding to register it or not. With all encounters between sharks and divers it is possible to allege that the shark was aggressive or ready to attack even when this is not the case. In order to fall under this category, it must be certain that the contact with the shark or sharks was imminent and, as in Piavali's case, could only be avoided by a controlled retreat maneuver.
The best described example in this category occurred in September 1956 when a 4.2 meter long female white shark bit Goffredo Lombardo seriously several times as he was diving on the ocean floor about 6 km off the coast of San Felice Circeo (Italy). He saved himself by shooting a harpoon into the shark's head. Fortunately, Lombardo was left completely uninjured despite a number of bite damages to his tanks and other diving equipment parts. Just as astonishing is the fact that one day later Lombardo returned to fish in the same spot and actually caught the same white shark that had attacked him. According to Giorgio Bini, who wrote an extensive report with photographs on this case (published in 1960), the shark still had the harpoon wound on his head.

In 1960 in the same location near San Felice Circeo another almost identical attack on two divers took place without leading to any injuries. The divers encountered the animal as it was swimming near the ocean floor, accompanied by a larger female. This interesting observation leads one to wonder if the shark's aggressive behavior could perhaps be connected to its mating behavior. It must also be mentioned that in September 1962, again at the same location, the spear fishermen and scuba diver, Maurizio Sarra, had less luck than his colleagues. He died on the operating table as a result of serious leg injuries incurred when a white shark attacked him. Sarra had been diving with three friends and had just deposited a harpooned perch into the boat and was on his way back to the ocean floor when it happened.

Attacks on boats, canoes, etc.

In many areas of the world where white sharks are known to live, boats are often "investigated" and even bitten into. This is no different in the Mediterranean. The tendency for adult white sharks to interact aggressively with fishing boats, pleasure boats and small vessels, such as canoes, for example, has been recorded over many decades.
In 1881, the respected fish expert Döderlein wrote that local fishermen had been warned after a white shark had attacked a boat in the Straits of Messina. In the MEDSAF Databank additional earlier reports of similar encounters with white sharks were registered between 1908 and 1935 off the coast of Trieste (Italy), the Istrian Peninsula (Croatia), in the Bosporus (Turkey), off the coast of Barcelona (Spain) and in the Ionian Sea off Catania (Sicily). In the eighties a small number of unprovoked attacks on small boats was also registered near the Island of Elba and off the Po estuary in the Adriatic Sea. The first known event with a canoe in the Mediterranean - comparable to attacks on kayaks or similar vessels in other parts of the world - happened on July 30, 1991, at 3.30 p.m. only 20 meters from the crowded beach in Tigullio Bay near Santa Margherita, Liguria (Italy). The local resident Ivana Iacaccia was in a 2 meter long, white fiberglass canoe in 9 meter deep water on her way back to the shore as she was attacked by a white shark of approx. 3.3 meter in length. It was possible to precisely identify the shark species through the damage on the canoe hull and through a tooth fragment which by chance became stuck in the fiberglass.
Considering the currently enormous increase in popularity of such boats and similarly sized surfboards and pedal boats in vacation centers of the Mediterranean, it may be surprising to learn that since 1991 no further incident has been registered (i.e. the attack of a white shark on a windsurfer resulting in bodily injuries happened in March 1986, however, just outside of the Mediterranean in Tarifa, Spain, on the Atlantic side of Gibraltar Statistics clearly prove that the risk of being attacked by a shark in the Mediterranean is extremely small, especialy in comparison to other regions of the world where sporadic attacks of white sharks on small vessels occur practically every year.

Provoked attacks on people

Provoked attacks occur relatively frequently in certain parts of the world. Divers interact consciously with different species of sharks and people can come into direct contact with agitated and defensive sharks through fishing, either in the water or when the sharks are heaved on board the vessels. Up until today, four such events were reported in the Mediterranean, whereby three of them ended with nonfatal injuries. In two cases, the blue sharks (Prionace glauca) were clearly identified, as well as a bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus), in a third case, it was a mackeral shark (of the Lamnid family), and in the fourth case possibly a white shark. All of these incidents took place in the coastal waters of Italy.

Questionable reports

A final (and always a very difficult) category in the MEDSAF Databank is found under the title "Encounters which need further confirmation". This category currently includes 10 cases, four of which ended "fatally". Most of them happened before 1980. With the assistance of scientists stationed around the Mediterranean, these cases are currently being investigated to prove or disprove their correctness. With the rich maritime inheritance of the region and the long history of local and regional population segments, the oral accounts of shark attacks is an expected and normal component of later science. As long as these events are not substantiated by reliable and verifiable statements from witnesses, newspaper reports, police reports or other form, most of them cannot be considered for statistical purposes.

(17265 characters)

Ian K. Fergusson is a shark biologist and Chairman of Shark Trust (England), and a well-known shark specialist in the Mediterranean.

May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Ian K. Fergusson



last change: 06-04-2016 11:48