Shark rips mans head off as biologist says it was mistaken identity

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A great white shark decapitated a man in a case of “mistaken identity” last month, experts say. Fisherman Manuel Nieblas López was diving to collect molluscs when a 19-foot-long shark bit off his head in Tobari Bay along the Gulf of California off Mexico on January 5. A surviving fisherman who witnessed the scene reportedly said the beast “impressively ripping off his head and biting both shoulders”.

But experts believe that Mr Lopez was not the intended victim.

It was a case of “mistaken identity,” according to Greg Skomal, a marine biologist at the University of Boston and the director of Massachusetts Marine Fisheries’ shark programme.

Sharks rarely bite humans. When they do, they usually grab the victim’s legs or torso after mistaking the person for prey, such as a seal, and then release the victim after realising their error. Experts told Live Science that a shark biting a person’s head or shoulders is extremely rare.

The director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach Chris Lowe, agreed with Mr Skomal’s conclusion, saying: “As rare as shark bites on humans can be, decapitation is even more rare.”

Gavin Naylor, a marine scientist at the University of Florida and manager of the International Shark Attack Files (ISAF), told the publication sharks sometimes rush to make decisions and “in the heat of the moment” consider anything a prey.

He explained: “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. Remember that predators have to think quickly.”

Hesitation, he said, “can leave them hungry”.

He added sharks’ limited vision makes it harder for them to distinguish between prey and humans.

As a result, the ISAF estimates that around 60 percent of shark attacks on people take place in what is referred to be murky water with reduced visibility.

Another reason behind the attack, Mr Naylor said, is Mr Lopez’s fishing which could have “lured the shark to the area.”

He said: “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.”

According to Trackingsharks.com, a website that keeps track of all shark attacks worldwide, Mr López was collecting shellfish at a depth of between 36 and 59 feet (11 and 18 m) while using a surface-supplied air source, a scuba-like apparatus that connects the diver to a compressed air source on a boat through a series of pipes.

Mr Skomal added: “It is also possible that [due to his position on the seafloor] he resembled a sea lion foraging.”

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The experts have rejected the theory the fisherman could have avoided the attack if he had worn a brightly coloured wetsuit, as recommended by local authorities.

“It is a difficult hypothesis to test,” according to Mr Skomal who said there is “no way to tell” whether that theory stands statistically given most wetsuits are either black or darkly coloured. The likely cause for the attack is the diver’s fishing activity, which misled the shark into thinking Mr López was a prey animal.

However, Mr Lowe admitted that “in most cases, we just don’t know” why a shark attacks someone.

“As you can imagine, it is very difficult to discern the motivation of the shark without detailed information of the situation prior to the bite.”

This is the first shark attack of 2023, according to Trackingsharks.com.

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