How to avoid shark attacks

Rodney Fox had been diving for hours when he decided to swim farther offshore into deeper water. It was december 8, 1963, and fox was competing in the south australian spearfishing championships as the defending champion. After he speared a couple of fish some 40-to-50-feet Underwater, Fox saw a dusky morwong, a fish that would earn him high points in the competition.“I was about to pull the trigger when this huge crash knocked me aside and I was pulled through the water,” recalled Mr. Fox, now in his 70s and living in Glenelg, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia. “I had this flash of a big black train hitting me.” The spear gun was torn from his hands as the great white shark clamped down on Fox’s chest and darted downward.

After gouging its eyes, Fox fell from the shark’s mouth. Instinctively, he tried to push away and climb to the surface. However, the shark chomped down on his arm, but he was able to rip it free. Running out of air, he pushed up and kicked his feet until he reached the surface. And then he looked down…

Close call

“I remember seeing it through the pink bloody water coming towards me,” Fox said. “A miracle happened there; the shark, instead of going for me, went straight for the float I was towing behind me, and it swallowed the float and the fish, and then it went down and dragged me with it. I was spinning, spinning, spinning. I was just about out of air. I tried to find the catch and I couldn’t find it and then a miracle happened: The line snapped.” Fox made it to the surface and was rescued. The shark broke every rib in Fox’s left side, ripped open a lung, exposed vital organs, and severed four of his tendons in his arm.

Why sharks attack

Ralph Collier, the president of the nonprofit foundation Shark Research Committee, doesn’t believe that most attacks on humans are the result of the shark mistaking the subject for a regular meal. “The majority of white shark attacks are quite gentle considering what they are capable of. It’s because they’re investigating. They’re testing,” said Collier. “If they wanted to eat us, they would.” In addition, some attacks indicate displacement behavior, when a shark is trying to get something perceived as threatening to leave an area. This could be an area where they’re feeding or where a female shark had decided to give birth, Collier said. Collier, who noted sharks have good vision and can see color, cited incidents when sharks bump kayaks or people, rather than killing them, or bite people in a manner that isn’t necessarily deadly. “We have to stop and think, ‘What does the shark know about its environment?’ It knows all the things that naturally occur there,” he said. “When something unnatural is around, it attracts their curiosity.”

Shark in the wild

Collier recommends humans must use common sense around sharks, like any large animal. They should be careful not to do anything that might result in a provoked attack. “These actions could be pulling a shark’s tail, jabbing or poking a shark with a speargun or similar object, cornering or cutting off a shark’s route to open water, attempting to feed a shark by hand, chumming or baiting a shark to your area, and/or making an aggressive gesture toward an approaching shark,” said Collier, author of “Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America” (Scientia Publishing, 2003). “These are just a few examples of the type of action that might provoke a shark to strike out.” Volunteers from all over the world contribute research to the Shark Research Committee, founded by Collier in 1963. One mainstay of its website, sharkresearchcommittee.com, is Pacific Coast Shark News, a page that has information on recent shark sightings or activity in the area, so that people can make informed decisions regarding going into the ocean when sharks have been nearby. People who know about recent shark activity can inform Collier via email. He follows up with them and puts a brief narrative on the website.

Get out of the water

Peter Howorth, director of the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit that rescues and cares for sick and injured marine mammals along the Santa Barbara County coastline, recommends using a radio or satellite phone while at the beach and knowing where shark “hot spots” are located. Both Collier and Howorth say it’s best to get out of the water as quickly as you can if you see a great white shark. “If you do see a shark and you’re not sure of what species it is, just move slowly and calmly back to the beach or boat,” Collier said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry and simply because this thing is cruising slowly and calmly doesn’t mean something won’t happen where this shark will become aggravated (and aggressive toward) you.” As for Fox, the shark attack survivor encourages his children and grandchildren to swim and dive because he believes the odds of an attack are low. If there has been a sighting of a large shark in the area, however, Fox recommends they wait a few days before getting back into the water.

When does a shark attack

Howorth believes that the public has many misconceptions about shark attacks on humans, including how often they occur. “Attacks in general are very uncommon, considering the number of people in the water, but of the attacks we do see, it’s not uncommon that the people have been swimming in areas frequented by pinnipeds [aka seals],” Howorth said, adding that “sharks can detect minute quantities of blood.” So, if you’ve cut yourself on a rock or coral while swimming (or if you are menstruating), get out of the water as quickly as possible.

Surviving an attack

Taking into consideration of when sharks attack, Howorth recommends having a survival plan before going into the water; for example, if you are a surfer, know how to use your surfboard leash as a tourniquet. “Take first-aid courses and learn about controlling the bleeding and CPR,” Howorth said, noting that keeping your wetsuit on can help control bleeding as well as help keep body parts together. “Have reliable means of communication.” “If you’re in the water, looking at the shark at the time it starts circling you, keep your eyes on the shark, turning (with) and watching it,” Fox said, “and move closer to other people or other swimmers or toward the boat or toward the shore. Don’t swim off like a wounded seal because they are largely ambush predators that don’t like attacking from the front.”

When a shark attack does seem imminent, there are a few things you can do to stay alive. Don’t play dead because the shark will think that it has succeeded in killing its lunch. When confronted, striking the shark in the nose and eyes is a good first step in thwarting its attack. The most vulnerable parts of a shark are the eyes and gills. Sharks have a protective skin that covers the eyes when they are attacking, so you’ll have to strike hard. Use your thumbs to gouge its eyes or grab and tear at its gills. A shark will most times circle its intended prey but sometimes will zig-zag back and forth, looking for a better angle of attack. If you can, back up against something, a jetty, a boat, anything to reduce the number of angles from which it can attack.

Sharks, like fish, are attracted to shiny objects (like fish scales) such as flashy jewelry, and they are very good at seeing contrasting colors. Avoid wearing bright colors like yellows and oranges, and leave your jewelry in the boat. Pay attention to your surroundings, specifically other animals. If other sea life are acting erratic or if they have suddenly and quickly vanished, be wary that they did so for a good reason. While on the subject of animals, don’t swim with dogs in the ocean. Their swimming patterns exactly match those of a wounded fish and can easily attract sharks.
Most importantly, remember this: in the sea, the shark is at the top of the food chain. “And it was your choice to go in there,” Fox adds.

Story by Nikki Grey

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.