A popular trope used by those seeking to recast the shark as a misunderstood beast is to compare the risk sharks pose to humans to the purported risk posed by ripening coconuts. These sweet-tasting, nutrient-rich tree nuts — the logic goes — kill more people by falling out of trees than do sharks. This is an ostensibly simple question to investigate, as it requires knowing only two things: the annual death rate from unprovoked shark attacks and the annual death rate from falling coconuts.
The annual death rate from sharks is pretty straightforward. The University of Florida runs a comprehensive database of shark attacks and fatalities: The International Shark Attack File. According to their research, there has been an average of six deaths annually over the past decade.
Problems emerge, however, when one tries to get a handle on how many people die each year as a direct result of injuries sustained by falling coconuts. The most commonly cited figure is that 150 people die each year from falling coconuts. No published research, however, has come up with any reliable estimate of this statistic whatsoever. Perhaps ironically, it appears that this number, as well, gained a sense of legitimacy from the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File, when a researcher there quoted the statistic in a press release for a local event:
"Falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks," said George Burgess, Director of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File and a noted shark researcher.
"The reality is that, on the list of potential dangers encountered in aquatic recreation, sharks are right at the bottom of the list," said Burgess, who was one of three scientists participating Tuesday in a National Sea Grant College Program and NOAA Fisheries sponsored press briefing on sharks and the risks of shark attacks at the National Press Club.
Investigating the specific claim of 150 coconut deaths each year, syndicated skeptic column The Straight Dope reached out to Burgess in 2002 to ask what his source was for that statistic, and discovered that, ultimately, it came from a British travel-insurance firm named Club Direct:
When I called Burgess, he told me he had gotten this statistic off the Internet — specifically, from a widely reported press release from the British travel-insurance firm Club Direct, saying that "holidaymakers hit by falling coconuts will be guaranteed full cover under their travel insurance policy. The news follows reports from Queensland, Australia, that coconut trees are being uprooted by local councils fearful of being sued for damages by people injured by coconuts. … 'Coconuts kill around 150 people worldwide each year, which makes them about ten times more dangerous than sharks,' says Brent Escott, managing director of Club Direct."
According to the column, this press release also cited a 1984 study from the Journal of Trauma titled "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts". That study — the recipient of a 2001 Ig Nobel award for research that "cannot or should not be replicated" — did not set out to calculate the global annual death rate from falling coconuts, however. Instead, using simple physics and four years of data collected from a remote Papua New Guinean hospital, it sought to demonstrate that the risk to human health from falling coconuts was a real one. From a physics standpoint, the paper argued:
If a coconut weighing 2 kg falls 25 meters onto a person's head, the impact velocity is 80 km/hr. The decelerating force on the head will vary depending on whether a direct or glancing blow is received. The distance in which the coconut is decelerated is also an important factor. Thus an infant's head lying on the ground would receive a much greater force than that received by the head of a standing adult, that dropped as it was struck. For a stopping distance of 5cm and a direct blow, the force would be 1,000 kg.
From a number of fatalities standpoint, however, the data did not actually directly identify a single fatality, though it did anecdotally report one death:
Nine trauma admissions resulted from falling coconuts during the 4-year study period; during this time a total of 355 trauma cases were admitted. Thus 2.5% of trauma admissions were caused by falling coconuts. Injuries were to the back, shoulders, or head. [...] The health worker who referred Patient 1 for craniotomy informed us about another person in the same village who had died instantly a few years earlier when struck on the head by a falling coconut.
While it might perhaps be possible to use this limited data to come up with a rough global estimate, no study has actually attempted to do this with systematic methodology. As such, there is no way to debunk the claim with 100 percent certainty. We can say, though, that newspaper reports of death from falling coconuts are far more sparse than reports of death from shark attacks. A 1973 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin detailed the tragic death of a 2-year old girl struck by a large number of falling coconuts on a beach, while claiming that as far as they could tell, this was the first newspaper report of such an incident in the area:
The fact that this 1973 story has been cited decades after the fact (for example from a 1999 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser below), at least superficially reinforces the notion that death from falling coconut is a rare (but real) occurrence:
We rank this as unproven because accurate, published estimates on the global annual rate of death from falling coconut do not yet exist. Given the dearth of firsthand accounts of death from falling coconut, however, it seems unlikely that they pose more of a threat to human health than do sharks — even if death from either event is extremely unlikely.