The annual total of 76 unprovoked attacks worldwide was less than the 85 recorded in 2000, and fatalities declined from 12 to five in the same period, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at the University of Florida.
The file is a record of all known shark attacks. Burgess, a biological scientist and operations coordinator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, reports the numbers annually and has just finished compiling them.
"Last year was anything but an average year, but that's because it was more like the summer of the media feeding frenzy," he said.
The number of attacks remained nearly identical in both the United States (55 in 2001 compared with 54 the previous year) and Florida, the nation's leader, where they decreased from 38 to 37, Burgess said.
But a few high-profile cases turned an otherwise slow news summer on its head. It began with the dramatic rescue of 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, whose arm was severed by a bull shark in the waters off Pensacola, Fla., on the weekend after the Fourth of July, he said.
Burgess, who normally handles about 300 inquiries a year from newspapers and radio and television stations on sharks, did more than 900 interviews during July, August and September. "I had more calls in those three months than I had in the previous three years combined," he said. "Some of them were from radio shows in places like Montana, North Dakota and Idaho, where there hasn't been a shark since the Miocene."
International press coverage also was heavy because Florida is a popular destination for tourists from Western Europe and Japan.
After saving his nephew in the July 6 attack, Arbogast's uncle pulled the shark to shore, emergency medical personnel retrieved the arm out of the shark's throat. Surgeons later reattached the limb.
"It was a made-for-TV movie kind of incident - one that clearly captured the imagination of the American public - and certainly was worth every line and TV spot that it got," he said. But with reporters stationed in Pensacola covering Arbogast's recovery, every shark bite, no matter how small, became news over the next few weeks, including a July 15 incident in which a shark nipped a surfer's foot near where Arbogast was attacked, Burgess said.
"On top of that, Mother Nature cooperated kind of nicely with the press, with a series of incidents that occurred about every two weeks," he said.
As in recent years, the bulk of the attacks (82 percent) were in North American waters, including 55 from the United States, four in the Bahamas, two from Mexico and one in Cuba. Outside of Florida, U.S. attacks were recorded in South Carolina (6), Hawaii (4), California (2), North Carolina (2), Texas (2), Alabama (1) and Virginia (1).
Surfers were the most frequent victims (35 incidents) followed by swimmers and waders (21), divers and snorkelers (11) and kayakers (4)
The suggestion made by some special interest groups last year that attacks have increased because 1993 U.S. fishery regulations have resulted in more sharks is groundless, Burgess said. Sharks are slow-growing animals and most of those born eight years ago haven't reached sexual maturity yet, he said.
In reality, there has been a gradual upswing in attacks over the past century as humans have spent more time in the water and shark attack reporting techniques improved, he said. In another high-profile attack last year, Krishna Thompson, 36, of New York, lost a leg in the Bahamas on Aug. 4.
Then on Labor Day weekend two fatalities occurred in North Carolina and Virginia, where shark attack deaths are relatively rare, he said.
Ten-year-old David Peltier was killed off Virginia Beach on Sept. 2. Sergei Zaloukaev, 26, died in an attack off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the next day, and his girlfriend, Natalia Slobodskaya, 23, lost a leg.
Writer: Cathy Keen