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Survival of the Fittest: What to Do When Sharks Attack

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Growing up under the long shadow of the 1975 blockbuster Jaws and its multiple reincarnations (Jaws 2, Jaws: The Revenge), many people in my generation have an almost visceral fear of sharks. For me, this certainly hasn’t been mitigated by living in Northern California, where the deadly “Red Triangle,” a three-pointed feeding ground and migration area for great whites, hangs over our beaches.  

Yet, despite the fear that these big fish invoke in many beach goers, surfers, and divers, across the country and world, shark attacks are a highly unlikely occurrence. In 2008, there were only forty-one shark attacks in the U.S., which is about average. Only one of these was fatal. In comparison, there are about eighteen fatalities due to dogs annually. You’re more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than by a shark. Conversely, we are their biggest predator.  

Still, these rational statistics don’t always assuage the irrational panic one can have while sitting small on a surfboard in places like Florida, California, Hawaii, or South Carolina, areas in the U.S. where shark attacks are most common. But is there any way to outsmart or survive a shark attack? What, exactly, should a person do if faced with the very remote possibility of coming face to face with this most formidable creature? 

Don’t Pick on the Big Ones
Most shark attacks aren’t initiated by the “Big Three”—bull, tiger, and great white sharks. These breeds grow larger than others and can therefore inflict the most damage; they’re also known to have attacked and killed humans. However, most attacks are inflicted by smaller species, those that mistake the movement of humans as prey. They go up for a bite, but aren’t likely to stick around, and may not cause severe injuries. 

That said, provoking smaller sharks, even those that are only a foot or two in length, could result in a bite. Provoked shark attacks, resulting from divers or swimmers touching, feeding, or grabbing sharks, can lead a typically non-aggressive shark to try to defend itself. 

Swim Smart
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Ichthyology site, there are things one can do to reduce the risk of a shark attack: 

  • Stay in groups, since sharks are less likely to attack a big group of people.
  • Darkness and twilight are when sharks are most active, so stay out of the water during these times.
  • Sharks are attracted to contrast, so brightly colored clothing should be avoided when diving or swimming. Similarly, shiny jewelry or watches can reflect light and look similar to the scales of a fish—and a shark’s meal.
  • Avoid swimming in areas used by sport fishers, where bait or feeding activity may attract sharks. 

Fishy Behavior
Certain behaviors can signal that a shark might be hanging around for more than just fun. While a shark swimming by means usually just means it’s curious, other times they will do something to tip you off that they’re on the prowl. If you’re diving, swimming, or surfing and a shark moves closer, hunches its back, lowers it pectoral (side) fins, swims in a rapid zigzag pattern, or swims up and down rapidly, it could be bad news. The shark is preparing to do something. 

Acting aggressively is the first sign to make a break for it. The Florida Ichthyology site recommends that divers back up against a surface (such as a rock or reef) to reduce the amount of angles from which a shark could attack. If you can, try to evacuate the area, swimming slowly and smoothly away; if you’re in open water, go back-to-back with a dive partner so you can keep your eye on the shark at all times. 

Of course, many people don’t see a shark attack coming; it appears out of nowhere. However, many have survived or fought off an attacking shark. Be aggressive and use any tools (spears, oars, etc.) to fight off a shark if it attacks. Hitting it as hard as possible with a fist in the nose, eyes, or gills—a shark’s sensitive zones—is particularly effective. 

In 2002, for instance, a surfer was attacked in Bolinas, California by a great white shark. The surfer hit the shark as hard as he could on the nose. Although it’s unclear if the punch or the shark’s dissatisfaction with what it found were the cause, it swam away. The surfer lived—with only a hundred stitches. 

If you’re trying to free someone from a shark’s jaws, kicking, jabbing it in the eye, and trying to cover its gills with a T-shirt or cloth—which can make it feel as if it’s drowning—are also recommended. In essence, fight back! Let the shark know you’re not willing prey. 

Though the media often portrays sharks as hungry, man-eating predators, the chances of an attack are very rare—you’re much more likely to suffer injury from something mundane, like a car. Sharks are amazing creatures and their power should be respected—just don’t let it keep you off the beach.


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