Sharks: How safe are you?

You walk out amazed at these animals … and drowning in statistics, some of which seem only lightly sourced or geographically vague. Just how accurate are the various reassuring odds?

George H. Burgess spoke on "Shark-Human Interactions: Who's Attacking Whom?" recently at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. He's a marine biologist with Florida State University and curator of the online International Shark Attack File. He's a regular on Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" (Aug. 2-9 this year). Burgess is also one of the go-to guys anytime there's a shark attack in the Southeast.

Burgess hadn't seen "Planet Shark" at the Georgia Aquarium but says there is a lot of bum shark data floating around. "It's like the stats in baseball; it's the trickiness of odds," he says. "It's hard to get accurate user data, and even then it's usually tainted because it doesn't include qualifying factors like the victim's length of time in the water, etc. It's almost impossible to measure the odds."

He says, though, that the stats at "Planet Shark" are pointed in the right direction. His data, at (click "Sharks"), report that in the United States, your odds of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million. One page on the site has by-state breakouts:

From 1935 to 2008, there were 35 unprovoked shark attacks in North Carolina and three fatalities. The S.C. data cover 1837 to 2008; over those 171 years, there have been 64 unprovoked attacks and two fatalities.

"If you step back and look at this, the odds of being attacked and dying from a shark are infinitesimal. It's not a problem.

"But obviously if your son or daughter is bit or killed, it's very real."

So what's the deal with shark appeal?

"People are very interested in animal bites, particularly big ones that can do major damage," Burgess says. "Subconsciously, probably, we're still looking over our shoulder as being the most successful species of life on the face of the Earth. But we're not the biggest, baddest animal out there.

"In the water, the shark is the No. 1 critter."

--John Bordsen, McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers

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