The abnormal, extreme fear of sharks is known as galeophobia. Those who suffer from it experience anxiety even when they are safe on the beach. It prevents many people from entering the ocean, let alone take up surfing. Encountering a shark in the water is indeed one of the most traumatic experiences one can have, but Professor Jeff Rosenthal from the University of Toronto believes the chances of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 8 million and the odds of getting killed by one are 1 in 400 million.
Surfers are particularly appealing to sharks in the waters of California, South Africa and Australia. So you can start by avoiding shark-infested waters. But we understand those perfect barrels are irresistible and well worth the risk, so if you really must go, here are a few tips to help you make it safely back to shore:
Why do sharks attack?
Most shark attacks on surfers are cases of mistaken identity. Humans are not on their menu, but they can be seen as an easy meal. To a shark, surfers in wetsuits and on surfboards appear as seals. In fact, 50.8% of shark attacks in 2010 were on surfers.
The most common types of attacks are provoked ones, meaning that people somehow disturb the shark. Considering great whites can reach speeds of 31 miles per hour (50 km/h) when engaged in an attack, that their mouth opens to nearly 180 degrees and that their bite generates up to 40,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, it’s hard to escape their wrath once challenged.
Unfortunately, unprovoked shark attack numbers are growing with each decade with the main reason being human interference. Sharks are one of the oldest living species on our planet and they are at the top of the food chain - relying on their instincts when hunting. Therefore, they are also territorial when it comes to food, and humans in the water can be seen as competitors. They will bite as a warning.
Types of shark attacks
There are three types of unprovoked shark attacks: hit-and-run attacks, bump-and-bite attacks and sneak attacks.
Hit-and-run attacks are often a case of mistaken identity. The shark causes a small laceration to the victim, realizes it made a mistake and leaves the scene. This is the most common type of shark attack.
Bump-and-bite attacks usually occur in deeper waters, but can also happen in shallow waters near shore. The predator circles its victim, bumps it and then attacks, inflicting potentially deadly wounds. Repeat attacks are common. The species involved in bump-and-bite attacks are great whites, bull sharks and tiger sharks.
Photo by gaftels
In sneak attacks, the predator appears out of nowhere and without any warning, just like in Jaws. The image is enough to give anyone the creeps, surfer or non-surfer. The shark will bite to kill and repeat attacks are common. The wounds are more severe in this case, and there’s no mistaken identity here.
Avoiding a shark encounter
Shark fins by the beach - Photo by Christian Haugen
Sharks live in all oceans and are not very fond of people. Every now and then, we just happen to be in the same place at the same time. The majority of shark attacks occur near the shore, where their natural prey lives. Also, don’t hang out at river mouths or inland harbors. This is where predators usually search for food.
Sharks usually hunt in the evening and night, and shark attacks are most likely to occur at dawn and dusk. At twilight, visibility is poor inside the water, and sharks may easily mistake humans for prey. Incoming storms stir baitfish, thus attracting sharks.
Surfing Victoria, Australia - Photo by Ed Dunens
Avoid surfing alone in shark-infested waters. Sharks are more likely to attack individuals that are alone rather than groups.
Never ignore the warning signs on the beaches where sharks have been sighted. If there happens to be a shark sighting while you’re in the water, get out as quickly and as calmly as possible.
Photo by James Loesch
Sharks have seven senses: 360-degree vision, smell, taste, electroreception, touch, hearing and pressure sensors (thanks to their lateral line). They can see colors and can easily spot high contrasts in the water. Avoid bright colors like yellow, orange and red. They are a bullseye to these predators. Reflections caused by jewelry and watches should also be avoided.
If you get injured in the water from hitting a reef, swim to shore immediately. It is hard to see whether you are bleeding while you’re still in the water, but sharks are known to be able to detect a drop of blood in an Olympic pool.
Anti-shark systems are a solution that might significantly reduce the number of casualties if properly implemented. The Shark Shield sends electrical pulses that keep sharks away and is so far the world’s only scientifically proven and independently tested electrical shark deterrent. You can attach the device to your leash or to the back tail of your surfboard.
Surviving a shark attack
Shark creeps behind pro surfer Mick Fanning - Photo credit nydailynews.com
In 2015, at the World Surfing League’s J-Bay Open in South Africa, a great white shark attacked pro surfer Mick Fanning during a live broadcast. He managed to fight the shark and get out of the water unharmed. Here are some valuable lessons we can learn from Mick’s encounter:
The first mistake people make when sighting a shark in the water is to panic. Stay as calm as possible, do not frantically paddle or swim to shore because the splashing sounds will encourage the shark into thinking he’s found a prey. Keep your eyes on the shark and try to see whether it is simply swimming around or if it is preparing an attack.
Sharks are ferocious, merciless creatures, but they can be defeated in battle. If the shark circles or bumps you, it usually means it’s trying to attack. Assume the worst-case scenario and get ready to defend yourself. Use anything you can to strike it. Use your surfboard if you do not have anything else, your hands and feet as well. Hit the shark repeatedly in the eyes or gills, fast and hard. Be aggressive, merciless and do not give up until you’ve worn out the predator. If the shark grabs you with its mouth, latch onto its muzzle and hit the eyes and gills with your spare hand.
Call for backup
Shout out to people on the shore, nearby boats, swimmers or lifeguards. The more people in the water, the more discouraged the shark will become.
Do not play dead
You’ll just present yourself as an easy meal, and sharks tend to simply swallow their catch.
Swim calmly back to shore
As I said before, humans are not on a shark’s diet. In the case of hit-and-run and bump-and-bite attacks, once they realize they’ve made a mistake, they will usually leave the scene. When it is safe, swim to the shore as calmly and as quickly as possible. Instruct anyone nearby to call for an ambulance. In the meantime, use clothes to stop the bleeding.
We all enjoy the water and some of us might even feel at home in it. But the sea is not without limits. Remember that we are merely visitors and sharks are simply minding their own business. While people do lose their lives to shark attacks, 20-30 million sharks are killed each year for commercial purposes. Shark extinction is a far greater threat. Sometimes, we become trespassers and, if the shark happens to be hungry, we provide the perfect opportunity. Respect their environment and leave no trace.
Did you know there’s a better chance of getting struck by lightning than being attacked by a shark? Now that you’ve read our tips on how to avoid and survive a shark attack, you have no more excuses. Go to BookSurfCamps.com and choose your next surf camp today.