The biggest shark in the world, the Whale Shark, is completely harmless unless plankton or krill is your species. No teeth! This 10m (30ft) beauty was photographed in the Maldives by Arturo de Frias Marques.
Shark Attacks Facts
Around the world there were 121 shark attacks in 2015 (including 12 fatalities), considerably up from 72 (with 3 fatalities) in 2014.
Réunion is a tiny island in the Indian Ocean that has experienced so many attacks and fatalities (per capita) that swimming off their shores is now forbidden.
Australia (both east and west coasts) and Reunion Island near Madagascar have been named as the new global hotspots for shark attacks in an annual survey.
The two locations – on either side of the Indian Ocean, though about 3700 miles (6000 kms) apart – have suffered regular shark maulings according to the recently released International Shark Attack File.
Western Australia had mainly white shark incidents and Reunion bull shark events.
While the figures show a growth in the number of attacks worldwide, the report stated that it probably reflects the increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans.
Surfers experienced the majority of shark incidents last year, with 60 per cent, followed by swimmers with 22 per cent and divers with 8 per cent.
Australians could reduce the risk of shark attacks by avoiding areas and times when sharks are most common. In Western Australia people have been getting hit in areas of known white shark abundance at times of the year when shark numbers are at their highest. It is our responsibility to stay out of the water at these times.
Australia had 21 attacks in 2015 (with seven fatalities over the past five years). A dramatic spike in attacks along the northern New South Wales coast has developed as great whites are lingering increasingly close to shore in large numbers. Unprovoked shark attacks were, until this year, relatively rare in Australia. In the past century they averaged just over five a year. In 2015, however, there were 14 attacks along New South Wales coast and a further 14 close encounters reported.
The United States’ 62 attacks occurred in Florida, Hawaii, California, South Carolina, North Carolina and Texas. Volusia County (which encompasses Daytona Beach) is a shark bite hotspot.
George Burgess of UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History says the overall trend has been a steady increase in attacks, which he expects to continue.
“That doesn’t mean sharks are getting a taste for humans, but rather that humans are ever more likely to be where sharks are feeding. As the human population and the popularity of aquatic pastimes grows, so do the chances of human-shark interaction, and attack”.
Florida’s position atop the attack list is hardly surprising given the state’s year-round appeal as a surfing and swimming destination. Burgess notes, however, that many Florida incidents rank low on the trauma scale: “Most of them are better called bites than attacks. They’re the equivalent of dog bites, ” he said.
Surfers and board sailors were victims of 46% of the world’s shark attacks.
As usual humans still pose a much greater risk to sharks than sharks do to humans.
The bottom line is that these animals have an unfairly dangerous reputation – thanks to Hollywood – and your chances of being ripped by a great white are smaller than being killed in a household accident.
The most dangerous sharks
1: Bull sharks
Carcharhinus Leucas, Bull Shark. Photo by Albert Kok.
These are the sharks most likely to go for humans – the larger mammal eating variety as they have the biggest bite and humans look far more like seals than fish. 45% of attacks are on surfers.
More dangerous than the Great White, Bull Sharks attack more or less anything, pump more testosterone than a bull elephant and attack more humans than any other shark.
The bull shark likes murky water and has a higher tolerance to fresh/brackish water than other shark species which is why they can be found swimming in rivers. People often don’t expect sharks in rivers where, to make things worse, the water is often muddy and unclear. They often swim into rivers such as the Mississippi and the Ganges.
What are the lessons ?
Know the local environment before you jump in to the nearest inviting fresh water near the sea such as an estuary. Southern USA and Australia are the worst places for bull sharks penetrating waterways quite a long way inland.
4: Oceanic Whitetips
Oceanic Whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus. Photo by Peterkoelbl.
Not to be confused with the White-Tipped Reef Shark, Oceanic Whitetips prefer deep water; their behaviour is aggressive and unpredictable, and they will attack more-or-less anything indiscriminately.
There are three kinds of shark attacks
• Hit and run: usually a single strike in a surf area as a result of mistaken identity or territorial dominance. Injuries are minor.
• Bump and bite: the animal is hungry and surveys the prey in decreasing circles, bumping it to get an initial flavour. After the bump comes the bite, if you’re tasty enough. Neoprene probably wouldn’t fit the bill. Repeat visits are common and injuries severe.
• Sudden strike: often by the Great White. Repeat visits are common and injuries severe.
Avoiding shark attacks
The recreational groups most attacked are surfers, with bathers second. Surfers splash a lot in surf conditions which making it easier for sharks to mistake their identity. Surfers also spend the greatest proportion of time in the water. Since 1980 over 300 surfers worldwide have been mauled by sharks.
Highly contrasting wetsuits (e. g. black and white), swimsuits or jewellery may get part of you mistaken for a fish, though zebra stripe suits are among a new range of designs in Australia aimed at deterring shark attacks.
• Don’t go alone – these animals tend to go for lone prey as their senses can tune in better on the target and they like easy meat. Sharks, like all predators, tend to go after solitary individuals, the weak and the infirm, and are less likely to attack people or fish in groups.
Furthermore, since great whites and tiger sharks tend to retreat after the first bite it’s useful to have victim assistance nearby.
• Don’t goin deep-while it is true that some attacks happen in shallow water, more often sharks travel around steep drop offs or near river mouths as that is where their natural food congregates.
• Don’t swim or surf in murky water – mistaken identity is generally the reason that people are attacked and in surf and/or murky water hungry beasts can see you less well tho’ they’ll still be getting good vibrations. Furthermore you can’t see them at all!
• Don’t go for dawn/dusk/night swims – the favoured hunting time and poor vision time for you.
• Don’t go in if there’s blood on you or in the water – sharks can detect the scent of blood many miles away so don’t enter the water with open wounds, nor near where people are fishing/spear fishing or near ocean garbage; ladies should not enter suspect waters during their monthly cycle.
• Don’t wear jewellery – a shark’s vision is not that great as they rely on vibrations or electrical signals in the water. However they do pick up on contrasting tones of dark and light very well which help them catch shiny fish. Barracuda are also attracted by bling.
• Don’t go bare – wear a wetsuit, nothing like the taste of neoprene to put a shark off his dinner!
• Don’t panic – if you see a shark, leave the water as quietly and quickly as possible, or stay still and vertical (i. e. unlike a seal)
Don’t swim where others have been attacked – sharks do strike twice, unlike lightning.
Authorities are resisting pressure for shark culls and instead encourage surfers and divers to turn to new equipment such as confusing colors/patterns for bodysuits and boards which disrupt shark’s targeting system before they can strike, or electronic pulse devices.
Another design known as a ‘cryptic’ wetsuit allows the wearer to blend in with background colours in the water, making it difficult for a shark to detect the wearer. The designs also come with stickers for the undersides of surfboards.
Recently the Shark Shield has come on the market, an electromagnetic cable attached to the surf board which throws an electronic field up to 6m around the board. According to the manufacturer’s website, the pulses do not harm the shark but annoy it. The closer the shark gets, the more spasms occur in its snout, which causes it to turn away from the irritation.
Another system that has attracted interest uses sonar-equipped buoys that detect large creatures. The buoys then send real-time intelligence about shark activity to lifeguards on the beach via satellite and the cellular phone network. The system is expected to be tried for the first time this summer on a large Sydney beach in 2016.
Researchers continue to devise new ways to repel sharks, such as equipping surfboards with lights, a feature that will be tested on South Africa’s white pointer sharks in 2016.
If you’re being circled or otherwise inspected
Swimmers and surfers – if the shark is circling you it may be just curious and checking its territory but if it continues circling and seems hungry try to look the opposite of its regular entreé – a seal. In other words don’t splash and get/stay vertical.
Another preventative measure is to join hands with another person, making your combined profile much bigger than the shark will wish to attack. Japanese pearl divers used to take off their loincloth and trail it in the water, increasing the apparent size of the swimmer.
Action to take if you’re attacked
Swimmers and surfers – look around the surface and below for a shadow, punch and kick at the animal’s nose and eyes if a repeat attack occurs*. Shout for help and if you think surf savvy bathers or lifeguard are present, the sign that you are in trouble is one arm raised high – do not wave with one arm, you may just get greeted back.
If you need to wave use both arms or try the international divers shark sign of finger tips together – like a dorsal fin.
Get out of the water as fast as possible but without panicked splashing; swim smoothly and you will go faster.
Your flippers will work best and attract fewer predatory fish if they don’t splash, so learn how to use them properly.
*Yes really! Some surfers at a competition in Florida 2001 were attacked repeatedly by several sharks. They literally punched and kicked the menacing fish away from their boards because they wanted to get on with the competition. Some lacerations resulted but all the surfers lived to tell the tale.
A British surfer was attacked by a Great White in South Africa in 2005. It grabbed his leg and dragged him along, however he punched and kicked the beast and lived to tell the tale on national television!
Give a helping hand:
If you see someone under attack, go to help them. It’s unknown for a shark to go for the help, they like to focus.
If you have weapons, use them. If not, try to hit the shark’s eyes or nose with anything – your camera, a rock or your fist.
Look Great Whites in the eye. Really! They prefer to attack things that are not looking at them!
These animals like to attack from the side or below so you could find cover protected by rocks.
If you see the shark going around in ever decreasing circles, and even brushing you, expect an attack. If it then heads for you, twitching and jerking – unlike the usual smooth glide – make yourself into a small ball. When the big fish is closer, suddenly snap into a maximum size starfish shape. This apparently confuses the fish’s primitive visual apparatus.
If you have a dive buddy – which you should have- holding him/her gives the beast the impression that you are bigger than it.
Remain calm and remember a panicked resurface could give you the bends and kill you.
Diving with sharks
Half a million people dive with sharks every year, some in cages, some in chain mail, some in nothing at all. The #1 spot for shark diving is South Africa (especially to see Great Whites), though Australia’s Barrier Reef or the Ningaloo Reef (especially good for massive Whale Sharks) on Australia’s west coast are also excellent.
There is some concern among local people and conservationists generally that sharks are associating the bait used to attract the big fish with the humans that hang around in the vicinity. In other words sharks are being trained to recognise this equation: easy food = humans.
Regular scuba diving
Among the pelagics (ocean-going fish) there is nothing quite like diving with sharks, known as sea dogs up to the 16th century. They are marvellous creatures – graceful, powerful, a little menacing and with great variety both physically and behaviourally. A loose aggregation of spotted eagle rays or a school of manta rays make spectacular company but don’t give the same tingly buzz as a cluster of man-eating sharks.
Sadly, as a result of over fishing it is becoming less common to encounter sharks in the normal course of diving. If you wish to seek them out the classic places are Galapagos, Cocos, South Africa, and parts of Asia like Layang-Layang.
However, it is also possible to enjoy the company of these majestic animals, up close in the west Atlantic and the Caribbean.
General tips on scuba with sharks:
First, if you’re on a guided shark dive, do listen carefully to whoever gives the briefing and watch him/her closely under water for any signals. They know what they’re doing (well, you hope they do !) and have local knowledge of both the environment and the creatures you are going to see.
Second, make sure you are comfortable with your equipment, weighting etc. because you don’t want to be fiddling about on an interactive shark dive. In this respect, avoid wearing or showing things that might attract undue shark attention (Shiny/sparkly stuff and blonde hair caught the eye of one tiger shark on a dive I made. If in doubt wear a hood).
Third, don’t wave limbs, hands or fingers around. Threshing about is not good for your diving and could send the wrong signals to the sharks whereas the odd digit may look like a tasty morsel to a passing predator.
Fourth, you could read up on the various shark species and their different behaviours beforehand.