More Australians have been killed in unprovoked shark attacks this year than in any year since 1934, but the total number of shark bites is in line with the annual average over the past decade.
That is prompting experts to consider whether La Nina, associated with cooler sea surface temperatures, might be affecting where sharks search for prey.
Western Australia Police on Sunday called off a search for the body of Andrew Sharpe after pieces of the 52-year-old’s wetsuit and surfboard had washed up on a beach near Esperance.
Friends saw a shark bite him two days earlier.
His death was the seventh from a shark bite in Australia this year and the sixth from an unprovoked attack.
According to the Australian Shark Attack File, it has been 86 years since six people last died from unprovoked shark bites in a single year.
Blake Chapman, a marine biologist who examined shark neuroscience for her master’s degree, said that understanding how a shark behaved when attacking was important in determining its intent.
She said repeated bites suggested that the shark was treating a human as prey.
“In some of the cases this year it sounds like the shark hung around and bit more than once, which is unusual behavior for great white sharks,” she said. “When they bite more than once it’s more likely to be fatal as there’s more blood loss.”
However, she said that some fatal attacks had been single bites on the upper part of the leg, groin or near the abdomen, leading to greater blood loss from key arteries and vital organs.
She said great white sharks, which have killed several of this year’s victims, “tend to follow migrations of prey,” such as salmon, which can be influenced by a La Nina.
“We do tend to see little spikes in shark bites in La Nina,” she said. “For great white sharks, if we see them bite someone once and then leave, it suggests they were maybe curious and weren’t in the area for prey, because there is nothing stopping a shark from eating a person.”
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