Shark attacks are very uncommon, and the majority of those attacked by sharks survive. However, risk can be reduced even further by taking precautions.
Sensationalistic media stories of rare shark attacks create the false impression that sharks are out to get people. Stories with high shock value sell newspapers, so despite the fact that they are very uncommon, shark attacks tend to be widely reported and remembered by all who read about them.
Although there is a far greater statistical likelihood of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a shark, shark risk can be further reduced by applying knowledge of why sharks attack to avoid luring them.
Ways to Lower the Risk of Shark Attacks
When engaging in water recreation activities in areas where there are shark populations, you can reduce your risk of attacks by taking the following precautions:
- Seek Safety in Numbers – Stay in groups and stick close together. Sharks are more likely to attack an individual on his or her own.
- Choose Your Times Carefully – Avoid water activities at night, as well as dawn and dusk. Sharks are more active at these times.
- Don’t Swim with Open Wounds – Don’t go in the water if you have a bleeding injury or are menstruating, as blood attracts sharks. If you cut yourself on a shell or rock, get out of the water.
- Remove Shiny Objects – Don’t wear shiny jewellery or watches in the water as they may reflect light in a way that resembles fish scales.
- Avoid Shark Food Sources – Don’t swim in areas where people are fishing, as bait fishes may attract sharks. Areas where there are schools of fish, seals, sea lions, or even dolphins may also be appealing to sharks, as are areas where there are effluents, sewage, or dead animals in the water. After heavy rains, the mouths of rivers can be dangerous spots because freshwater fish are swept out to sea, attracting sharks. In addition, seeing large numbers of seabirds may indicate that there are lots of fish in the water, and so sharks may be drawn to the area.
- Don’t Stand Out – Don’t wear brightly coloured clothing. Sharks are particularly adept at spotting contrasting colours. An uneven tan may also catch a shark’s attention.
- Don’t Behave Like an Injured Fish – Don’t splash around excessively, particularly in murky waters. Many shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity where the shark believes that a clumsy, flailing human is an injured fish. Having pets splashing around in the water may attract sharks for the same reason.
- Avoid Shark Hangouts – Sharks tend to spend time near steep drop-offs and between sandbars. Avoid these areas.
- Don’t Swim in Murky Waters – Sharks are more likely to mistake a human for one of their regular prey animals when visibility is poor.
- Don’t Provoke Sharks – Many people are attacked because they prod or corner a shark. Allow sharks plenty of space so that they will not feel that they have to attack you to get away.
- Leave if There Are Signs of Danger – If fish or turtles begin to behave erratically, leave the water immediately. They may be reacting to the presence of a shark. Also, if you feel anything brush up against you, get out of the water and check for injuries. Many shark bite victims have reported feeling no pain when the bite occurred.
What to Do if You See a Shark
If you see a shark, stay calm and it will probably leave you alone. The majority of shark species have never attacked a human being, and even the few that have occasionally done so are more likely to swim away in fear than to attack. Leave the water quickly, but move smoothly and do not splash. Keep an eye on the shark at all times.
If you are diving and far away from shore, stay very still. If you are holding a catch of seafood, let it go. The shark is more likely to be interested in your catch than you.
If the shark begins showing signs of aggression such as charging or making other erratic or sudden movements, swim to the shore if possible using smooth strokes, or if the shore is too far away, to a place where the shark will have fewer angles to attack from, such as a reef or rock outcropping. The important thing is not to panic and begin splashing around in a manner that might cause the shark to believe that you are an injured fish. Keep watching the shark at all times, even while swimming away.
In the unlikely event of a shark attack, don’t play dead as this does not work with sharks. Fight back fiercely, using any equipment you have with you (i.e., camera, spear gun) to repel it. Even if the shark captures you in its mouth, continue to fight back aggressively, attacking the gills and eyes. There is still a good chance of escape.
For more information on sharks, see the main Sharks page.
- AdoptaShark.com. (2009). “FAQ.” Iemanya Oceanica.
- Burgess, George H., International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. (n.d.). “Reducing the Risk of a Shark Encounter: Advice to Aquatic Recreationists,” “How, When, & Where Sharks Attack,” and “Advice to Divers Encountering a Shark.” FLMNH.UFL.edu.
- National Geographic News. (1 July 2005). “Shark Attack Tips.” NationalGeographic.com.