Shark Attacks Tourist on Whale-Watching Trip, Bites Off Her Hands

A French tourist has been severely injured in a rare shark attack off the coast of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

The 35-year-old woman was swimming in the waters off Moorea island on a whale-watching trip on Monday, according to Radio New Zealand, when she was attacked by an oceanic whitetip shark that ripped into her chest and arms, the AFP reports.

The woman was airlifted to a hospital in Tahiti and was reported to have lost both hands and a lot of blood, according to firefighter Jean-Jacques Riveta.

"Luckily for her, there were two nurses on the scene who could deliver first aid," he told AFP.

Shark attacks are said to be rare in French Polynesia, with only 6 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks reported since 1580, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) of the Florida Museum of Natural History, which claims to be the "world's only scientifically documented, comprehensive database of all known shark attacks."

Speaking to Newsweek, Gavin Naylor, program director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History: "Shark attacks are generally very rare in French Polynesia—which is somewhat surprising to me because there are quite a few tourist operations in Moorea that lure sharks and rays into shallow water with food so that tourists can interact and snorkel with the animals.

"However the majority of sharks involved with these operations are the black tipped reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus). These animals rarely get much larger than 5 or 6 feet long and are rarely responsible for any serious bites on humans."

He added: "This sounds like a freak accident to me. The whale-watching/snorkeling tours off Moorea are generally run by very experienced guides. No bait is put in the water and the biggest concern is not to upset the whales.

"There are measures that can be taken to minimize the risk of shark bites in the inshore areas, like restricting operations that use bait to lure sharks into shallow water, but there is little that can be done to prevent these freak accidents associated with whale watching [from occurring.]"

Great White Shark
An underwater image of a great white shark. There are believed to be around 70 to 100 shark attacks annually worldwide. Dave J Hogan/Getty

There are believed to be around 70 to 100 shark attacks annually worldwide, with about 5 to 15 of them being fatal, but there could be more bearing in mind that not all attacks are reported, especially in developing countries and in other regions where news of any shark attacks may be kept quiet for fear of bad publicity, the ISAF notes.

The U.S. currently has the highest number of confirmed unprovoked shark attacks to date since 1580 with 1,441 reported attacks, followed by Australia (642), South Africa (255), Brazil (107) and New Zealand (52) rounding out the top five, according to the ISAF.

"Historically the death rate was much higher than today, but the advent of readily available emergency services and improved medical treatment has greatly reduced the chances of mortality," ISAF states. "Actual numbers of shark attacks certainly are going up each decade because of increasing numbers of bathers in the water, but there is no indication that there is any change in the per capita rate of attack."

While the relative risk of a shark attack is believed to be very small, there are practical ways for the risk to be minimized such as staying in groups (since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual), avoiding being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active or wearing any shiny jewelry as the light reflected from it resembles the sheen of fish scales that could potentially attract sharks, the ISAF advises. See more advice on how to reduce the risks of a shark encounter at the Florida Museum ISAF website.