First, the good news. Statistically, most people who are attacked by sharks survive. Only 20% of shark attacks are fatal. While we’re talking numbers, it’s reassuring to know that shark attacks don’t happen very often either. In 2013, there were just 72 confirmed attacks by sharks worldwide.
Not all sharks attack either. Of the 480 recorded shark species, only three have been known to attack the hairless chimpanzee we call “humans” in more than double figures. Those sharks are the great white, the bull shark and the tiger shark. Now the bad news. Sharks are apex predators, designed to dominate their environment totally. They are organic machines made for aquatic killing, fashioned from muscle and teeth, with senses honed to detect movement and smell blood. If a shark decides to attack you, there’s no winning for you.
There’s only survival.
Luckily, you’re reading this – so if you ever do get munched by a shark, you’ll know exactly what to do.
There are two basic kinds of shark attack; provoked and an unprovoked. Provoked attacks are just about what they sound like. Funnily enough, if you poke a shark with a stick or swim around waving your flippers in its face, it will chomp you. That initial 2013 figure of 72 attacks worldwide doubles to 125 if you count all the times people deserved to be bitten by a shark.
So, rule number one. If you want to avoid having your leg noshed off at the knee, don’t go touching them or poking them.
Sharks may be superpowered death machines in the water, but they’re also relatively thick. While humans have developed complex language skills and the ability to play Candy Crush Saga for hours on end, sharks are all reflex. Most of their brain is brain-stem. This makes their behaviour relatively predictable.
That all sounds very positive, suggesting that you may be able to outwit a shark with your guile and cunning. You won’t. But you will have a pretty good idea how things are likely to pan out.
Sharks come at you in one of three ways:
They creep up on you
There you are, minding your own business, perhaps paddling along on your surfboard when – out of nowhere – a shark attacks from directly below you. Victims sustain “multiple deep bites” and few survive. This is the classic “Jaws” scenario and, thankfully, rare.
They bump into you
Oh, what’s this? A ten foot bull shark has just swum up next to you and is playfully nudging you, like a friendly porpoise. And it just bumped into you again. Perhaps it wants to play? Perhaps it’s just… OH MY GOD IT’S BITING YOU OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
You are dead. Probably.
They bite you and swim away
The most common type of attack tends to happen in more shallow water, close to the shore. You may see a warning flash of fin and a glimpse of psychopathic eye before sharky bites you. Then he’ll swim off. Contrary to popular belief, humans are not high up on the list of tasty prey for sharks and it just wanted to see what you were made of. As long as no vital organs are punctured and you get medical help before you bleed out, congratulations; you’re statistically likely to survive.
Shark defence 101
Will knowing any of this help you survive? It just might… Your only real defence against shark attack is to fight or flee. The nature of the attack will help you to decide which is more appropriate.
If you see the shark before it attacks, swim away slowly and steadily. Panicking and splashing around will just draw more attention and the shark will laugh at you. Fortunately, sharks are rubbish at walking, so you should aim to get out of the water as quickly as you can. If you can’t get to shore, or climb onto a reef or boat, just backing up against a hard surface will reduce the shark’s angle of attack.
Chances are that the ordeal will be over quickly and the shark will swim off once it realises how rubbish and crunchy you are. Don’t stick around to find out what happens next.
Despite the shark’s superior aptitude for tearing you to pieces, don’t rule out having a scrap. You may not be able to cause a great deal of damage, but sharks are not used to encountering animals that can punch or stab them. They find this a bit off-putting and may leave you alone if you cause them enough trouble. Go for its eyes and gills – the softest, most sensitive parts of the shark. A few swift biffs on the nose might help dissuade it too.
How not to be eaten by a shark
As the old saying goes, “prevention is always better than being noshed by a shark”. There is a direct correlation between shark attacks and the increasing human population, even though shark numbers remain consistent. In other words, the more people stray into shark territory, the more they get bitten.
It helps to know where the shark attack hotspots are. In the USA, it’s the Florida coast. There’s a higher incidence of shark attack there than anywhere else in the world. On the bright side, there have been comparatively few fatalities; just 1 in 25. That medal goes to Western Australia, with 1 in 3 of its 704 recorded attacks ending in the morgue. Hawaii, the Bahamas and South Africa have statistically higher incidences of shark attack too.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the sea when you visit these places – but do heed local warnings. There are a few other tips you can take with you:
- Swim in daylight. Sharks come out at night
- Blood attracts sharks, so avoid swimming when cut or injured
- Sharks will avoid groups of people – so don’t swim alone
- Excessive splashing sounds like an injured fish to a shark. You may as well be ringing some kind of shark-optimised dinner bell
We’ll leave you with this thought: you’re more likely to be killed by lightning than bitten by a shark. An average of 24,000 people are fatally zapped every year. Sharks claim an average of just four lives a year. The lesson? Compared to lightning, sharks are crap.