If you went diving and a shark grabbed you, you might become scared of them, if you weren't already. But shark photographer John Bantin is far more sanguine

A shark attack often makes headlines around the world. The story is always of some poor swimmer or surfer who, despite having done nothing to encourage it, gets confronted by a lethal predator that intends to gobble them up.

If the swimmer is lucky, only their arm or leg will be bitten. A few less-fortunate victims will lose their lives.

This possibility means that, for many of us, getting into shark-infested waters is not an appealing thought.

But to picture sharks up close, in all their awe-inspiring detail, you have to swim with them.  

Each picture in this story comes from a close encounter. The divers are all still in one piece. 

Diving with sharks can sound frightening, but when you consider the statistics on shark attacks, you may change your mind. 

In 2014, out of 72 unprovoked shark attacks, there were only three fatalities. Yet each time someone even comes close to a shark, it is widely reported that they "had a lucky escape".   

There is no known shark that specifically preys on humans

In the UK, there are often reports of "monster sharks" off the coast. In May 2015 a porbeagle shark was captured and photographed by a fisherman. Headlines like "Just when you thought it was safe…" soon appeared, even though the story spelled out that the porbeagle is harmless. 

Enormous basking sharks can also lurk near the UK coast. A basking shark has "jaws so large it could swallow you whole", one report would have you believe. In fact they are benign, plankton-eating creatures.  

There is no known shark that specifically preys on humans. If they happen to bite, it's usually because they have mistaken us for other food. 

 

To dispel fallacies like these, diver and shark photographer John Bantin has documented his career in his book Shark Bytes: Tales of Diving with the Bizarre and the Beautiful

Bantin hopes people will change their attitudes towards sharks, as he did over the first decade of his career. "Over the years as my knowledge increased, I realised sharks were not the undiscerning predators that the media likes to make out they are." 

They are not cuddly puppy dogs, they are able to bite easily

When he first started, the view was "if you got in the water and saw a shark, you had to get out immediately."

Despite the fact that there are more than 500 species, each with unique feeding habits, Bantin says the attitude was very much "a shark was a shark was a shark". The shark in most people's minds was usually the great white, the species with the most human attacks to its name.  

Slowly it became apparent to Bantin and others that there are huge differences between shark species. Only a fraction will ever mistake a human for the prey they are intending to hunt. 

 

That said, sharks do pose a serious threat. "They are not cuddly puppy dogs, they are able to bite easily," says Bantin. "You must treat them with respect."

You are under the water and you feel a thump and you hope you are not bleeding too much

If they see or smell anything that moves, they may investigate further, and they do so by biting. If a shark bites you in the leg or punches an artery, you could bleed to death. 

Bantin has been seized by a tiger shark twice. "Luckily in both cases I was grabbed by my scuba tank and not my body. You are under the water and you feel a thump and you hope you are not bleeding too much."

In most cases, the shark will realise it has not caught prey and will let go. "Back in the 1990s I thought I was surviving a shark attack," says Bantin. "I was just surviving being looked at. Later on I would relish those opportunities in order to get pictures." 

At the last minute they are less than accurate

According to the shark attack database Tracking Sharks, Florida has seen the most bites so far in 2015. But sharks are certainly not swimming there in search of people to eat. 

The more likely scenario is that in rough seas, which are ideal surfing conditions, the sharks cannot see properly. That makes it easy to mistake surfers for prey.

Attacks may also be triggered by fishermen dragging dying and injured fish through the water. The fish give off vibrations, which "ring the dinner bell for sharks", says Bantin.

If a human is near something that the shark is interested in, they might get bitten by sheer accident. "They close their eyes when they bite to protect them[selves], so at the last minute they are less than accurate," says Bantin.

All this bad press has not been good for sharks. They are more at risk from us than we are from them. An estimated 100 million are killed each year. 

Bantin hopes that his recollections will help to dispel some of the myths. Sharks help keep the oceans healthy, he says: "they are the dust-bin men of the sea", vacuuming up all the injured and poorly fish. 

Fortunately it isn't all bad news. The worldwide interest in sharks means that there are many sources with accurate information about them.

For example, the BBC's 2015 series Shark corrected many of the common fallacies.

The outcry over proposed culls of sharks has never been greater

Conservation charities also do their bit. Sonya Fordham of the non-profit organisation Shark Advocates International says that, over the past 20 years, there has been a steady growth in people's appreciation and awareness of the role sharks play in the ocean.   

"The outcry over proposed culls of sharks, for instance, has never been greater," says Fordham. "It is important to recognise, however, that large species like the great white – as vulnerable as they are – are among the world's most protected sharks."

 

Other smaller and less charismatic shark species are often completely unregulated or protected, and therefore more at risk. 

"The challenge, therefore, is to not only continue advances in understanding, appreciating, and conserving big sharks, but to also expand public concern and safeguards to cover the at-risk smaller and flatter species," she says.  

Another factor is that access to beaches around the world has never been greater. While we are not sharks' intended prey, accidents can and do happen.

Perhaps next time you go swimming in shark-infested waters, remember that it is you that is encroaching on their natural habitat, not the other way around. They lived in the sea for millions of years before we ever existed.

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

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