Picture this: You’re swimming in the ocean, when suddenly, a shadow looms up and a grey fin pokes out of the water…a shark!
That’s what happened to Australian pro-surfer Mick Fanning on Sunday during the World Surf League’s J-Bay Open in South Africa, who luckily escaped unscathed.
Fortunately, shark attacks are incredibly rare — your odds of being attacked are about 1 in 11.5 million, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. In fact, you’re much more likely to be killed by a lightning strike or bee sting than a shark.
However, in the unlikely event that you find yourself face-to-face with a shark, don’t panic! Just follow these expert recommendations from the Florida Museum of Natural History and National Geographic News.
- Stay calm and don’t splash around. Most sharks are just curious, and will leave on their own.
- Leave the water. Swim quickly but smoothly, watching the shark at all times. But if you can’t get away in time…
- Back up against something. If a shark is acting aggressively (rushing at you, hunching its back, lowering its side fins, or swimming rapidly in a rapid zigzag or up and down), find a reef, rock outcropping, or piling to back up against so the shark can’t swim up behind you. If you can’t find a reef, stand back-to-back with another person.
- Fight back aggressively. Playing dead will not work. If you have a speargun, camera or other hard object, you can use it to spear or hit the shark; otherwise, use your hands or feet.
- Punch or claw at the eyes and gills, as these are the most sensitive areas. Contrary to popular advice, punching a shark in the nose probably isn’t your best defence.
- If you’re bitten, try to stop the bleeding. Leave the water as quickly and calmly as possible, as the shark may return.
- Seek medical attention immediately, if needed.
There are a number of things you can do to prevent a shark attack in the first place. George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File at the FMNH has compiled the following list of tips:
- Avoid swimming between sunset and sunrise, when sharks are most active.
- Stay in a group, and don’t stray far from shore. Lone individuals are more likely to be attacked than large groups, and the farther from shore you are, the harder it is to get help.
- Avoid wearing shiny jewellery, because it resembles fish scales.
- Avoid brightly coloured or patterned clothing, because sharks are good at seeing contrast.
- Don’t go in waters used by fisherman. Sharks can smell bait from very far away.
- Avoid water exposed to sewage, or if you are bleeding. These substances can attract sharks.
- Porpoise sightings don’t mean sharks aren’t present. In fact, more the opposite. Watchout for signs of bait fishes or feeding activity, such as diving seabirds.
- Don’t splash excessively, and don’t allow pets in the water.
- Be careful when you’re near sandbars or steep drop-offs, which are favourite hangout spots for sharks.
- Do not enter water where sharks are known to be present, and evacuate the water if sharks are seen. And don’t harass a shark.
Remember, you’re not likely to be attacked by a shark at all. But if you are, now you know what to do!
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