The weather is warming up and no doubt people will soon begin flocking to beaches both near and far. As I am currently in St. Maarten and considering snorkeling for the first time in my life, I thought it would be prudent to do an article on one of my greatest fears: how one survives shark attacks. How to avoid one, how to resist one already in progress, and how to react once you’re bitten. Dive in, my friends, and let’s discover the murky world of nature’s ultimate predator.
Let’s begin with a little background information on this mysterious creature, the shark. They come in many different species but only a few are particularly dangerous to humans. [Pause for a dramatic Richard Dreyfuss effect] …Carcharodon carcharias, otherwise known as the Great White takes the lead with two times the number of unprovoked attacks as any other species. The Tiger shark and the Bull shark slide in right behind, thanks to their indiscriminate taste buds and sneaky predatory behavior. These three are the biggest, deadliest, and the ones you need to watch out for most. But they aren’t the only dangerous species out there. The Requiem, Sand Tiger, Black Tip, Narrowtooth, Hammerhead, Spinner, and Blue shark round out the top 10 most likely to mistake you for a snack.
In writing about sharks I’ve come to realize that there is almost no way that you can describe them without sounding like a B-movie from 1986. Single gulp! Rows of teeth! Tearing through flesh! In shark world, these are merely facts instead of hyperbole. Sharks do not chew, they tear off hunks and swallow them whole. They do so by using their bottom teeth to grip the prey and their top teeth to slice through flesh. Of course this does do a fair bit of damage to their teeth, which is why behind each single tooth there is a row of about four more teeth, ready to take its place at any given time. The top three sharks most likely to attack you, The Great White, Tiger, and Bull sharks, have been around longer than humans. They have evolved into perfect eating machines and have some particularly terrifying attributes to their name.
The Great White, for instance, can breach the water, meaning it can use the massive force from its tail to propel itself up to twenty feet into the air. Off the coast of South Africa, where most Great White research is conducted, the sharks have been known to hunt in clans, with females taking a dominant role over males. Females also generally get larger than males with an average length of 15″“16 feet, but they can approach 20 feet. In rare but noted instances, Great Whites have swallowed grown adults whole.
The Tiger Shark, which is found in most tropical waters worldwide, gets its name from the dark stripes down it’s body. These creatures usually average about 9″“13 feet long and prefer to dine in the shallows, often attacking in less than six feet of water. This, combined with their indiscriminate appetite, is the reason for it’s slot as the No. 2 most deadly shark. Its natural habitat and predilection for anything that moves puts it on a collision course with humans.
The Bull Shark was named for it’s stocky appearance and stubborn behavior. This shark comes in third when it comes to deadly human encounters, but it has one terrifying aspect that sets it apart from the rest: the Bull Shark can go up stream into fresh water. This species has been found swimming hundreds of miles up the Mississippi and Amazon rivers, with one discovered as far up as Illinois. Add to that they are particularly known for aggressive behavior, and you have a serious predator on your hands.
Because the best defense against a shark is to avoid a shark attack, here are some key elements to be aware of when considering going in the water:
- Avoid swimming in the early morning and at dusk. These are prime shark feeding times.
- Avoid flashy swimsuits and wetsuits. Any contrast or shiny objects could pick up and catch the shark’s attention.
- Do not splash around and avoid letting your pet in the water with you. Splashing mimics prey in distress, which is one of the shark’s favorite meals.
- Avoid swimming in murky water and water near sewage. Sharks are drawn to this atmosphere, and in the dirty water they are more likely to mistake you for seals. Once in Agadir, on the Atlantic, I noticed that there were a large number of fish heads floating in the surf and lining the beach. This is a prime example of a bad time to enter the water. That day, instead of swimming, I built sandcastles.
- Avoid swimming anywhere near a seal. If there is an island covered in seals nearby, there are no doubt Great Whites roaming about.
- Avoid areas with steep drop offs and the areas between sandbars.
- Avoid going in the water while bleeding. If you are menstruating, a tampon will be adequate protection against the shark smelling any blood.
However, sometimes regardless of all the precautions we’ve taken, it’s still impossible to avoid an attack. There are few different styles of attack that are important for you to be aware of. The most common is that of the curious shark. In the world of delicious shark food, you are lentils – kinda meh, but consumable. Luckily, there are no middle-class, judgemental sharks around to berate other sharks for not choosing the low-blubber option. So the most common attacks involve a shark taking a bite of you, realizing you are no cheesecake (i.e. seals), and then swimming off in search of better food. This is rather cold comfort, however, as it can only take one bite to sever an artery and cause severe blood loss.
Occasionally before a bite, swimmers will report feeling a strange bump as though they had scraped up against a rock, others report a shadow lurking nearby. If you are lucky enough to get this warning, you’ll have a chance to prepare yourself. After the exploratory bump, the bite usually occurs within a number of seconds.
Then there are the attacks you never see coming. These usually involve sharks that have been deprived of their main food source and so they’ve decided to settle on the next best thing. These attacks usually come from below and involve some kind of quick and strong blow and then a dragging, usually by the leg, further under water. While this sounds dire, and it is, these are also survivable events that one need not give up hope on.
So how do you do it? How do you keep your wits about you and defend yourself when part of your body is in the jaws of something bigger, meaner, and much more evolved than you? Excellent question. Here’s the business:
- Although nobody will blame you for doing so: try not to splash and scream. It will only provoke the shark further. If you feel a bite and then the shark swims away, swim as smoothly as possible to shore or a nearby boat and try to keep your breathing regulated.
- Fight! Fight! Fight! Sharks are big fans of dead prey, so pretending to be so will increase your chance of being eaten. Instead, go crazy on the fish. Use whatever you can to rake at and agitate the eyes and gills. If you can find a rock or stick, use that to further pummel the shark’s sensitive bits.
- Avoid punching the nose. It is not that far off from the teeth, and during a struggle you can easily miss and put your hands directly into the shark’s jaws. If you can only reach the shark’s head, the top of the nose is a better option for striking.
- If you are diving, back up against a reef, rock, or anything that can reduce the angles at which the shark can attack you from.
- Keep your eyes peeled if the shark bites you and then swims off a bit. It may be headed back for a second bite, and you need to be able to brace yourself.
- Shark teeth are made for shredding their prey. They shake their head back and forth (like an exited dog trying to kill it’s toy). If the shark starts to shake you, hold on to it. This will essentially reduce the chance of it ripping off chunks of flesh from your body.
- Be aware that shark’s skin is basically made up of tiny modified teeth called dermal denticles. It is smooth when you stroke it, but if you go against the grain, it is rough and can be painful, so take caution when attacking.
I know it may seem hopeless, but it’s really not. There are lots of shark attack survivors out there. One diver had his entire head and torso in the mouth of a shark – we’re talking teeth around the guy’s waist – and was still able to live to tell the tale. Usually as long as you are thrashing, you have a chance. The shark is more likely to give up on prey that is not easy to consume. Of course, if you’re a statistics person, then you certainly have the numbers on your side: You are more likely to be killed by a pig than by a shark. Furthermore, ocean activities see far more accidental drownings than death by Jaws.
Just remember that when swimming in shark-infested waters, it is best to do so on a beach with a lifeguard and decent emergency care system nearby. And always, if possible, swim with a group or near a group. It will make rescue a million times quicker and your survival that much more likely. And if you ever happen to be the witness to a shark attack, do not be afraid to go in and help. In all the reported cases of people diving in to save the victim (and there are many), never once has the shark attacked the second person. That’s just not the way their attack mode functions. So as the weather heats up and you feel the water calling your name, feel free to dive in. Just keep in mind that the sea belongs to these creatures, and if you choose to enter it, you must respect their natural habitat. Stay calm, stay safe, and enjoy your day at the beach.