A diver collecting mollusks recently lost his life when a shark bit his head off. Two people on a support vessel witnessed the attack. “He was diving when the animal attacked him, impressively ripping off his head and biting both shoulders,” Jose Bernal told Tracking Sharks.

The attack occurred on January 5 in the Gulf of California near Mexico at a depth of fewer than 60 feet. Manuel López was harvesting ax tripe, which are similar to scallops, when a 19-foot great white shark attacked. Experts say that the action of pulling mollusks from the sea floor generates underwater turbulence, which may have attracted the shark.

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The fatality happened in a coastal area where people had been warned to temporarily stay out of the water because of increased shark activity. Pregnant female sharks gather annually in the Sea of Cortez from December through January to target nutrient-rich seals. This has prompted some local divers to stay out of the water. But the diver who succumbed to the attack did not heed the warning. 

How Common Are Great White Shark Attacks?

Shark attacks are rare. Though shark attacks regularly garner news headlines, overall trends show that they’re actually on the decline, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). In 2022, 57 unprovoked shark bites and 5 confirmed fatal shark attacks worldwide. Those numbers are down from 2021, which recorded 73 unprovoked shark bites and 9 fatalities.

“The total number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people participating in aquatic recreation each year,” explains the ISAF. “Fatality rates have been declining for decades, reflecting advances in beach safety, medical treatment, and public awareness.”

Great white shark attacks are responsible for most but not all fatal shark attacks. The second deadliest shark species is the tiger shark. The third deadliest shark species is the bull shark.

Where Do Most Great White Shark Attacks Take Place?

Great white sharks are found worldwide in temperate and sub-tropical waters, meaning great white shark attacks can take place in coastal areas all over the globe. According to historical ISAF data that dates back several centuries, the U.S. is the most common place for shark attacks. Since 1580, there have been approximately 1,604 shark attacks in the country. Australia is a distant second with 691 attacks in the same time period. Beyond those two countries, the ISAF says that the number of shark attacks in other countries, including Mexico, is “almost negligible.”

Within the U.S., Florida is the biggest hotspot for shark attacks. In 2022, the state recorded 16 unprovoked shark bites. New York recorded eight, Hawaii five, and California and South Carolina both reported four.

Why Do Great White Shark Attacks Occur?

The most common reason for a shark attack on humans is misidentification. Usually, sharks bite the torsos or legs of people when they mistake them for seals or other prey, particularly in murky water conditions. In fact, according to the ISAF, 60 percent of attacks on record happened in murky water.

“Any time someone is fishing—whether for fishes or invertebrates like scallops or lobster—sharks are drawn to the smells in the water and the vibrations of struggling animals,” University of Florida marine biologist Gavin Naylor told Live Science. “If sharks are excited and hungry, they make rash decisions and bite what— in the heat of the moment—they consider a potential prey item. Predators have to think quickly. If they hesitate, it can leave them hungry.” 

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Great white shark attacks are often short. When they bite into a human and realize they aren’t seals, they often back off. In the recent incident in Mexico, shark expert Greg Skomal told LiveScience that the great white shark may have mistaken the mollusk diver for a sea lion foraging along the ocean floor. Experts are not sure why the shark targeted the victim’s head, which is considered extremely rare in a shark attack on humans, instead of his torso or legs, though they speculate it may have simply been the most accessible part of the man’s body.