• Photo: mtarlock/flickr

It seemed like the plot of a horror movie. In a singe day last December, four tourists were attacked by a shark in the warm waters off Egypt’s Red Sea coast, a popular tourist getaway. Three of the four victims were severely injured. The attacks terrorized the coast, drove tourists away, and made authorities desperate to kill the offending shark and declare the waters safe. In short order, two different sharks, one an oceanic whitetip and the other a mako, were hunted down and killed. But then, just after authorities re-opened the beaches to swimmers, a woman was killed by a shark on December 5, 2010, in the area of the first attacks. That made for five attacks in five days. Experts called it "unprecedented," aside from Hollywood movies of course. (They also seem to have forgotten about the similarly horrifying Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 in the U.S.)

Fortunately, no more attacks followed and the incidents were deemed coincidental. So, it came as some surprise this week when researchers at the University of Florida released their annual international shark attack report. The report found that 2010 was the worst year for shark attacks in a decade. Globally, attacks were up by 25 percent, with 79 unprovoked attacks by sharks on humans and six fatalities. There were a further 22 shark attacks on humans classified as "provoked," and another three attacks on marine vessels (perhaps the famous scene in Jaws of the shark ramming and biting the boat is not pure Hollywood after all). The U.S. experienced the most attacks with 36, followed by Australia (14), South Africa (8), and Egypt and Vietnam with six each. And the report also notes that shark attacks on humans have steadily increased over the past century.

Still, shark attacks on humans remain extremely rare. "The rate of attacks is not necessarily going up," lead researcher George Burgess says, pointing out that "population is rising and the interest in aquatic recreation grows." Indeed, proportionally, a person is much more likely to be struck by lightening than to be killed by a shark. Most of the shark attacks worldwide happen under fairly narrow circumstances — in most cases, the victim had been surfing, which it has been suggested, sharks confuse from below with their natural prey, seals. As for the horror story-like Egyptian shark attacks in December, experts have since attributed it to the dumping of sheep carcasses in the waters near where the attacks took place, which presumably attracted sharks to the area and sparked a feeding frenzy.

While shark attacks in Canada are virtually unknown, some people will be surprised to learn that there is no shortage of sharks lurking Canadian waters. At least 19 different species of shark are known to swim Canada’s waters, including one of the world’s largest, the Greenland shark, which has been found in the St. Lawrence River Many different species are found along British Columbia’s Pacific coast, which famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called the second best place for scuba diving in the world (the first said Cousteau was Egypt’s Red Sea). The chilly waters of the Canadian Arctic are also home to vast numbers of Greenland Sharks, and for those willing to brave the cold, one tour operator even offers shark diving in Nunavut.

As crazy as it might sound, maybe it is a good idea to see these remarkable and formidable predators swimming in large numbers while it’s still possible. The University of Florida’s report also points out that many shark species are endangered and that humans continue to kill an astonishing 30-70 million sharks annually — the result being a general decline in shark numbers worldwide. Unfortunately, humans, often only learn to appreciate an animal when it’s almost the last of its kind.