SYDNEY, Australia – A recent string of shark attacks across Australia has rattled swimmers' nerves, but experts say fear not — it's (relatively) safe to go in the water.
"This is a mild hysteria," said Rachel Robbins, chief scientist at Australia's Rodney Fox Shark Research Foundation, named for and founded by famed shark expert. "I think it's just a freak coincidence that we've happened to have three shark attacks" in two days.
Despite the assurances, a debate is raging over whether there are indeed more sharks in Australia's waters — or whether there are simply more swimmers aware of the creatures' presence.
The trouble began on Dec. 27, when 51-year-old Brian Guest vanished while snorkeling with his son off a beach in Western Australia. A piece of his wet suit was later found, and officials said he was almost certainly eaten by a shark.
On Sunday, a 13-year-old surfer in the island state of Tasmania was dragged under water by a 16-foot (5-meter) great white shark, and a 31-year-old surfer was bitten while surfing at a remote beach in New South Wales state. Both survived.
The on Monday, Steven Fogarty was snorkeling in southern New South Wales when a shark latched onto his leg. He survived after punching the creature until it let go.
Meanwhile, several beaches across the country were closed as sharks were spotted close to shore. Officials have cautioned people to swim in groups, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk when sharks are feeding and to stick to patrolled beaches.
But despite the recent incidents, experts point out that there is an average of just one fatal shark attack in the country's waters each year.
"People need to put the risk in perspective," said John West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File database. "Many more people die on the roads in one day in Australia than in a decade by shark attacks."
West said there is no evidence that shark populations are soaring or that there has been a significant increase in attacks in recent years. He said the flurry of sightings was probably a direct result of the recent attacks: The unusual spree made people more likely to be on the lookout for sharks.
But Michael Brown, managing director of Surfwatch Australia, which conducts observational flights along beaches in the Sydney area several times a week, said there has been an "unbelievable increase" in the number of sharks spotted over the past few years.
Brown said currents that pulled nutrient-rich waters closer to the coast following storms off of New South Wales about four years ago left a perfect environment for smaller fish, which fed larger fish, which in turn, fed more sharks.
"The way nature works, if there's plenty of food, conditions are good, then sharks breed," he said.
Some have urged officials to add more shark nets to the country's beaches. The nets, which run parallel to the shore, were installed along some east coast beaches in the 1930s, but their effectiveness at keeping sharks away from swimmers is questionable. They are not full enclosures, and many sharks are caught on the inside of the nets as they swim away from the beach.
Others have argued for targeted killings of large sharks, but most experts have dismissed the idea as misplaced and inappropriate.
"Most people who enter the water here know that there are sharks here and respect the sharks being here," Robbins said. "We are the visitors."