How to avoid shark attacks

Scientific writer, PhD
Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation

Our Place in the Natural World

The ocean is the only home for over 500 species of sharks found across our planet. The diversity of sharks is amazing, and for every apex predator your first thought leaps to, there is another unusual, small, camouflaged or herbivorous shark to match.

Entering the ocean doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll bump into a top predator: your first encounters with sharks might be of the odd, tiny or even flattened (like rays and skates) kind! That said, stepping into the ocean is entering the domain of animals that have ruled our oceans for over 450 million years.

Not everyone is totally at ease with that thought – and that’s okay! Enjoying the ocean and its myriad benefits can take many forms: from inhaling the ozone released by surf spray, to absorbing the peace that gazing out to a far horizon brings or delighting in a beach comber’s walk at the high tide mark. You could even connect with sharks without ever setting foot in the surf. Many an ocean lover scours the beach for egg cases or mermaid’s purses and gleans insights into these magical underwater lives.

But the pull of the ocean is strong, and most of us can’t resist the lure of a swim, surf, snorkel, dive or kayak. Many of us also feel that we belong in the ocean and being ocean-going human-beings is our best way of connecting with the natural world. If this is the case, you should be well-versed in the risks that being an ocean-user brings. These extend far beyond the risk of a shark encounter and are more likely. All around the world, lifeguards and coastguard organisations work hard to educate us about the potential hazard of rip currents, changing tides, cold and swimming alone: include sharks as just one of these many factors that you consider each time you enter the ocean, and you’re sure to have a wonderfully sustainable relationship with the sea.

A scuba diver holds a puffadder shyshark.
Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation
A scuba diver holds a puffadder shyshark. Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation

Know Your Risk

There are numerous statistics to evidence how low the likelihood of a fatal shark encounter is for the average beach-goer. More people die in rip currents than ever do by shark encounter, according to the International Shark Attack file’s database (Rip Currents – International Shark Attack File) The risk is higher from beach injuries (like drowning), the collapse of an innocently built sand hole, lightning-strike or boating.

With this in mind, it may help to learn more about the biology of sharks. With so many different sharks in the sea, it helps to know that they can be anything from predators to scavengers or planktivores. Different species eat anything from crabs, shrimp and snails to sea snakes, seals, other sharks, fish, seabirds or plankton! When you know more about sharks, you’re more empowered to debunk sensationalism and confront your ocean-going exploits with a reasoned, evidence-based rationale. You’re also more likely to consider their welfare when you enter the water empowered with newfound knowledge and empathy: harassing, chasing or touching sharks is never advisable. Not only is this unethical, but haranguing even a tiny, crustacean-crunching shark might end with an unpleasant fright that could have been avoided.

While no one advocates that you ignore your risk entirely, it helps to keep it in perspective. A calculated risk taken with adequate precautions will, in most cases, mean a happy ocean adventure and a more pleasurable mindset for you!

A white shark in False Bay, with the seaside town of Muizenberg, Cape Town in the background. Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation
A white shark in False Bay, with the seaside town of Muizenberg, Cape Town in the background. Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation

Check In With the Experts

There are fantastic organisations around the world working hard to manage the relationship we have with sharks. Get to know reputable, evidence-based sources of information and organisations that have a sound conservation ethic that is not sensationalised.

The Save our Seas Foundation is one of the proud sponsors of the Shark Spotters programme in South Africa: a world-renowned programme that mitigates the risk of encounters with white sharks by managing the behaviour of ocean-users. Their website is a treasure trove of well-researched information, with sound advice based on years of observation of both white sharks and ocean-goers from the beaches of Cape Town, South Africa. The programme is conservation-minded, balancing the interests of people and sharks living alongside each other in a busy, popular part of the ocean-going world.

The Be Shark Smart campaign by the Queensland Government of Australia is the non-lethal side of a wider programme that includes lethal shark control methods, but details some key information packed into easy messaging about how to (in their words) “avoid a negative shark encounter”. The primary idea here is to empower yourself with enough knowledge to make smart decisions. Hopefully, when we take on the responsibility of entering the ocean ourselves (just as we do when we consider rip currents, or tides) we shift the emphasis away from controlling the numbers of sharks in our waters to managing our own behaviour.

The International Shark Attack files are hosted by the Florida Museum and are the only scientifically documented resource on shark encounters over time. While no one wants to obsess over unpleasant ideas about risk, the Files include information about reducing your risk depending on your ocean-going profile and shows that when we take sharks seriously in their ecological place, and balance this with our desire to be in the water, we can avoid the pendulum of popular opinion swinging from one extreme to the other and take our own, reasoned road to ocean enjoyment.

Academic and author Dr Christopher Neff offers a scientific insight into how we speak about shark encounters. His work covers what our attitudes are towards sharks, and how this shapes our perceptions of them – and consequently, our risk in the ocean. If understanding more about our attitudes and our policy responses to emotional events like shark encounters helps you reframe your risk, you might want to consult Dr Neff’s book: Flaws: Shark Bites and Emotional Public Policymaking.

Wise Up

There are many tips for how to avoid negative shark encounters, and even more on what to do in the event of sighting a shark. However, there are some practical steps to take when going to the beach – whether you’re considering shark encounters, or not – that will make your ocean adventure an all-round safer experience, and keep you (and those who’d need to rescue you) out of harm’s way.

Swim where you’re asked to stay. Just as you should do to avoid drowning or injury by entering the ocean where there are rip currents or other risks, enter the ocean at recognised beaches with patrols, a swimming perimeter or demarcated flags. When you do this, there is access to help at hand if anything goes awry: from lifeguards to fellow beach users, amenities and access to roads and infrastructure to get more comprehensive assistance.

Read the signs. Yes, the physical ones placed on many beaches around the world by municipalities, governments, conservation agencies or NGOs. Often these signboards detail important information about water temperatures and ocean conditions that you need to know before entering the water wisely. They usually record recent sightings to let you know if other hazards are present. For instance – are there swarms of stinging ocean animals (called anything from bluebottles to stingers, sea wasps, box jellyfish or Irukandji) in the water just before you hurl yourself into the surf?

What to do about white sharks? Typically, our concerns about shark encounters come down to only a handful of species. One of the most renowned of these is the white shark. The Shark Spotters programme deals quite specifically with tips for avoiding white shark encounters. They advise swimming in a group and avoiding the ocean when it’s murky, twilight or dawn and visibility is low. If you do encounter a white shark, remain calm and signal for help on shore, avoiding panicked or erratic movements.

Spot signs of shark snacks. Spotting diving seabirds or a flurry of activity in the water from a pod of dolphins can be thrilling, but you’ll do well to learn the signs of baitfish shoaling in an area. To reduce your risk of encountering a shark, don’t swim out into the midst of a shoal of palatable shark snacks like sardines. Fishers also often put bait into the water to attract fish to their lines, and discard scraps and leftover bait that may prove irresistible to sharks in the area. Just avoid fishers: it’s probably smart to minimize your risk of an errant fish hook, line or boat propeller anyway! As a fisher, remember that the inverse consideration is also true: don’t go set your nets or lines at as swimming beach, or drive your boat onto a favoured surf spot. Even more than keeping bathers safe in the presence of sharks, this courtesy between ocean-users is what keeps us all happy in the ocean in the long run!

Take The Plunge

Our oceans give us excitement, comfort, adventure and exercise. They can be a source of spiritual and cultural connection, or a place where we harvest our food and make our livelihood. Ensuring that our oceans continue to give us these benefits means entering healthy, diverse ecosystems and living alongside sharks. Equipped with sound advice, adequate information about sharks and a healthy perception of your risk, your connection to the ocean can stay strong.

Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation
Photo by Mac Stone | © Save Our Seas Foundation


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