How to survive a shark attack – or better yet, avoid one altogether

By Nick Thompson and Forrest Brown, CNN

First off, despite some truly terrifying survival stories, you’re extremely unlikely to be fighting a shark anytime soon.

But sharks sometimes attack humans. Florida teenager Addison Bethea was seriously injured recently when a shark attacked her in the waters off Keaton Beach along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

And while this kind of encounter is understandably scary for would-be ocean swimmers, there’s no need to panic about your next beach vacation. The chances of being attacked by a shark are extremely low.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File found only 73 confirmed and unprovoked shark bites on people and 39 confirmed and provoked bites in 2021 worldwide.

Think about it for a minute – the world’s population is approaching 8 billion people. Many of them live near the coast or vacation on the coast. And only 112 bites were recorded. Your risk of drowning is much, much higher.

In 2021, the United States paved the way for unprovoked attacks at 47; Florida had the highest total in the state at 28.

That said, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of surviving a highly unlikely attack, according to shark experts interviewed by CNN Travel.

Before you get in the water

Know your environment

Sharks are salt water creatures. The ocean is their home; we are the visitors.

“If you go into the ocean, you have to assume you might encounter a shark no matter when or where it is,” said Neil Hammerschlag, director of the shark research and conservation program at the Rosenstiel School of the University. ‘University of Miami.

“Fortunately, humans aren’t on the menu, and thankfully, sharks tend to avoid people as well.”

Still, there are places where you are more likely to encounter a shark.

River mouths are not the best place to swim

You should avoid estuaries, said Richard Peirce, author, shark expert and former chairman of the UK-based Shark Trust and Shark Conservation Society.

Their often murky waters are a favorite of bull sharks, which are most likely to attack humans along with great white sharks and tiger sharks.

“A huge number of attacks happen at the mouths of rivers, where there’s silt and other suspended matter in the river – people are washing their clothes, people are washing themselves,” Peirce said.

Hammerschlag pointed to another area where an encounter is more likely: deeper channels between the shore and more distant sandbanks.

Avoid fishing areas

Before jumping into the water, take a look at the horizon: what do you see? If you see fishing boats, Peirce says “forget it.”

“Whether the fishing activity is commercial or recreational, gear will often be discarded, and unwanted dead fish, fish parts, and the act of gutting fish all put fish in the water and attract the beware of the sharks,” he said.

Before entering, watch for unusual fish activity, such as a whole bunch of small and medium-sized fish jumping out of the water, Hammerschlag said. This is a possible sign that a shark might be nearby.

He also advised not to swim within 50 yards of where someone is fishing from shore.

Avoid dusk and dawn

Swimming early in the morning or late at night can be nice, but that’s also when a shark attack is most likely.

“Many shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity,” says Peirce, “due to reduced visibility and ability to identify the shark’s name.”

Hang on to lifeguards

Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, advises to “do your homework” before heading into uncharted waters. Find out a bit about the species you might encounter in different places.

If you have questions, ask a local lifeguard. He said they are a great resource.

“I always recommend people go to supervised beaches. It’s much safer,” he said.

Do not wear shiny objects in the water

“Watch out for jewelry, anything that flashes because sharks are always looking for fish.” Lowe said.

In murky water, a shark may think the flash is a sign of a meal. “And you don’t want your hand or your foot to be mistaken for that.”

follow your instincts

“The most important thing is probably to follow your instincts,” Hammerschlag said. “If you’re worried about getting in the water…don’t go.”

“A lot of people who have been bitten have actually said they had a weird feeling before that, like they had an inner voice telling them to get out of the water and they didn’t listen to it,” said he declared.

If a shark is nearby

don’t panic

So you’re surrounded by a shark. The worst thing you can do right now is panic.

“Don’t start dabbling — you’ll just excite, incite and encourage the shark’s interest,” Peirce said.

Humans, monkeys, dogs and cats all have legs and hands. If we want to explore something, we take it and we touch it, we smell it, we put it in our nose.

“A shark doesn’t have legs or hands, so if it wants to explore something, the only ability it has to do that is to put it in its mouth,” Peirce said.

“That’s why we often get exploratory bites that don’t result in death and sometimes don’t even result in serious injury. If you go swimming and splashing around, you are almost inviting the shark to come and give you an exploration or attack bite.

Maintain eye contact

As the shark swims around you, keep your head on a swivel and try to maintain eye contact.

“Sharks are ambush predators,” Peirce explained. “If you turn around and face him the whole time while he surrounds you, it won’t be half as comfortable as if he’s able to sneak up from behind.”

Hammerschlag agreed, saying you should position your body towards the shark so it knows you’re seeing it and following it. Then slowly ascend towards your exit to a boat or shore.

If you’re surfing, follow the shark with your board, Lowe said. “Let the shark know he’s being watched.”

Stay big or go small

This is where it gets complicated. If a shark is clearly in attack mode, you need to get as big as you can in the water, according to Peirce.

“The bigger you are in the water, the more respect you will get,” he said.

But if the shark just seems to pass, Peirce’s advice is to curl up.

“If a shark sees you as a competitor for its food source, that may be one of the reasons it attacks you,” he explained.

“If I didn’t want to be seen by a great white shark as a competitor – and if he didn’t show huge interest in me – I would cower so that he showed even less interest in me.”

If you are attacked

don’t play dead

It’s not a bear, it’s a shark. If you find yourself in an aggressive encounter, punch, kick, and poke in the sensitive spots – but be careful where you aim.

“There’s all this talk about punching a shark in the nose. It’s OK, but remember just below the nose is a mouth,” Peirce said.

“It’s a moving object in the water and you don’t stay still either, so what you don’t want to do is end up effectively hitting your mouth or anywhere near it.”

A good swipe on the gills can also do the trick: “The gills are very sensitive – whipping a shark in the gills isn’t a bad idea.”

Do you carry anything with you? If so, turn it into a weapon.

“If you’re a scuba diver with an underwater camera, use it, if you’re a snorkeler, rip out your snorkel and use it to sting the shark,” says Peirce.

“I’ve had a lot of sharks come at me, and it’s (enough) to use a shark billy – a little metal rod between two and three feet long – and just give them a little nudge elbow on the nose.”

It’s a good idea to swim with other people, Lowe said. Not only does this decrease the risk of attack, he said, but you have someone to help you get to a boat or shore if you are bitten.

cut corners

If you’re a diver and you’re having trouble, try getting into a position where the shark can’t get behind you, Peirce says.

“Keep your back to something like a coral reef. Then you only have one direction to look. You are protected from behind, for example, and this allows you to keep the shark in sight ahead of you and perhaps swim slowly up the top of the reef to where your boat is.

Back up slowly

Displace as little water as possible. Try not to struggle and splash as you gradually swim towards shore.

“You have to try to keep the animal in sight and very slowly and gently try to swim backwards and into shallow water. Again you have to be careful – large sharks can attack at very low depth.

Doing the above can help to some extent, but Peirce says the likelihood of escaping without injury when a large shark attacks is slim.

“If a white shark is in full attack mode, there’s not much you can do at this point,” he says.

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This article was updated in 2022.

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