MIAMI, March 1, 2010 -- The not-so-good news for swimmers: shark attacks worldwide rose marginally in 2009. But the brighter news for those splashing into American waters is that attacks off U.S. shores plummeted more than 30 percent.
In 2009, there were 61 total shark attacks worldwide, five of them fatal. That's up slightly from 60 attacks and four deaths in 2008.
"The big story is that the number of attacks in the United States dropped dramatically from 41 in 2008 to 28 in 2009," he said George Burgess Director of the University of Florida Program for Shark Research and the annual report's author.
More than half the attacks involved surfers, though the majority are relatively minor and the overall chances of being killed by a shark attack are "infinitesimal," according to Burgess. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a person is nearly 20 times more likely to be killed by lightning.
More easily quantifiable, is the most dangerous place to swim. Florida's Volusia county, with eight shark attacks in 2009. Volusia's strip of coastline was the site of 13 percent of all the shark attacks last year, reinforcing its dubious title of shark-bite capital of the world.
But the deadliest place to surf or swim was South Africa's coast, where white sharks congregate in cooler waters and surfers go to hunt big waves. According to the Shark Attack Report, the six attacks off the roughly 1,500 miles of South African coastline last year included four of the five fatalities worldwide.
Volusia County, by contrast, saw no fatalities resulting from its eight attacks.
While shark attacks have risen steadily over the past century -- in lockstep with world's population growth, Burgess noted -- the fatality rate has steadily declined, from about 60 percent at the turn of the 20th century to about 7 percent today.
Burgess credits vastly improved trauma care, the increasing professionalism of lifeguards and greater public awareness, for the change.
Leave the Water or Fight
Burgess' first piece of advice to fend off a shark attack sounds pretty sensible: "leave the water." If flight fails, he said the alternative is to fight.
"Give [the shark] a pop on its nose, more times than not sharks will react and be startled and move away." The animal's snout is relatively sensitive.
He wryly cautions, however, that a shark's "nose" is located just north of its mouth. If the shark manages "to grab you, I suggest that you use your fingers to go into the eyes or gills slits, which are right behind the eyes on the head."
The rate of shark attacks is dictated by the number of sharks and humans sharing the same waters, Burgess said. With such small numbers of attacks compared to visitors to U.S. coastal waters, it's nearly impossible to judge the reason for the reduction of attacks last year. But because the number of sharks prowling U.S. coasts has remained relatively static over the past year, Burgess speculated the number of bathers at U.S. beaches may have declined.
"The drop-offs in the United States may perhaps have been a reflection of a down economy which reduced the number of tourists, the amount of gas one was willing to spend to go to the beach and so forth," he told ABC News.
He acknowledged that his is just a theory, based on little scientific evidence.