As surfer, windsurfer and freediver, I often get asked if I am afraid of sharks. I normally answer this question by first explaining to people why I’m not afraid of them and why knowledge is key when staying safe with sharks.
This post will provide an in-depth answer to this question and will (hopefully) provide people with a resource that will educate and inform them on this topic. I will end the article by presenting some tips on staying safe with sharks and listing some links to further information online.
I got inspired by the dream of Armand to write this post. Armand his dream is to go Tiger Shark Diving in the Bahamas. Because I’m organising a Cape Town Surf Adventure for the advanced to experienced surfers in September, I figured this post could give a lot of valuable insights.
The Beginning (And the Detachment)
Life itself arose from the oceans. Indeed, human beings still possess many of the physiological responses to immersion such as the mammalian diving reflex – the optimisation of respiration by delivering oxygen stores to the heart and brain, allowing us to remain submerged for an extended period. But although we share several similarities such as this to sea creatures, we have lost touch with the ocean and all life that lives within it. In fact, 95% of the oceans are yet to be discovered and we currently know more about space than we do about the oceans.
Apart from killer whales (who hunt great white sharks in some occassions) sharks are generally considered the most dominant predators in the ocean. Having inhabited the Earth for such an incredible amount of time (450 million years), sharks have clearly developed exceptional hunting capabilities. However, these exceptional capabilities, along with the capacity to reproduce and flourish as a species have worked effectively in a stable environment for millions of years with no natural predators, which is no longer the case. Man’s ferocious slaughter of sharks has changed that dynamic and sharks now face the greatest threat to their species yet with over 100,000,000 sharks being are killed every year (in the most brutal way imaginable) which is far more than the shark population can sustain.
The lifespan of a great white shark is very similar to humans and they need to be given time to mature and to reproduce which leaves them vulnerable to extinction. In excess of what was previously thought, great white sharks are believed to live for 70 years or more which means it will take generations to turn the tides of their population’s demise.
On a more positive note, despite our lack of knowledge and understanding of the oceans and everything in it, we are currently experiencing a technological revolution that could bring us closer to marine life. This may allow us to gain a greater understanding of how they communicate and what challenges they face due to environmental changes.
A World Without Sharks
As top predators or “alpha predators”, sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystems. If they cease to exist, our primary sources of food, water and air will all be affected negatively.
Sharks existence are crucial in keeping this ecosystem in a healthy balance. Most of the energy in marine ecosystems is produced by small algae and phytoplankton which are eaten by smaller animals like krill and zooplankton. These krill and zooplankton are eaten by small fish, and the small fish are eaten by larger fish. Being top predators, sharks can eat any living thing within the marine ecosystem and none can eat them. This means that, without sharks, many species of sea creature would grow uncontrollably which would destabilise the system, creating a domino effect of species extinction.
On the topic of sharks becoming extinct, Michael Rogers of Sharksider.com notes several disastrous consequences for the oceans, environment, and human life including the disappearance of coral reefs, the increase of global warming and the collapse of the economy. It is, therefore, crucial that we make every effort to preserve these awesome predators to keep the planet in balance.
Shark Attacks – The Facts
Now, the purpose of this post is not to try to convince people that sharks don’t kill people; its purpose is to educate and inform as I believe this is the only way to change our mindset about the most misunderstood animal of all time.
According to recent research on shark attacks, there were 88 reported attacks worldwide in 2017. Of the 88 attacks, 5 resulted in fatalities which is marginally higher than the most recent 5-year average and a little below the average of 6 deaths per year. However, Lindsay French of the Florida Museum of Natural History states that these increased averages are to be expected due to the growth in world population and the increased amount of time people spend in the water as tourism and water sports continue to rise in popularity.
Worldwide, the attacks took place in the following countries;
United States – 53
Australia – 14 (one fatality)
Reunion Island – 3 (two fatalities)
Costa Rica – 2 (one fatality)
Ascension Island – 2
Bahamas – 2
Indonesia – 2
South Africa – 2
Cuba – 1 (one fatality)
Brazil – 1
Canary Islands – 1
Cuba – 1
Egypt – 1
England – 1
Japan – 1
Maldives – 1
New Zealand – 1
When we study the International Shark Attack File on the Florida Museum website, we can see that there have been 491 global shark attacks from 2011-2016, of which 43 were fatal.
Reunion Island, measuring 970 square miles with a population of less than 1 million, accounts for 19 attacks and 7 fatalities in that period, equating to 16% of global shark attacks in a six-year period. If we compare those figures to those of South Africa we see a stark contrast; a country measuring just over 471,000 square miles with a population of over 55 million and also a notorious shark attack destination in a similar location, South Africa accounted for 7 shark attacks during the 2011-2016 time-frame. To put that into perspective, South Africa is 490 times the size of Reunion with 65 times the population.
Why Sharks Attack
A few explanations have been offered for the disproportionate amount of shark attacks in Reunion such as the tropical conditions encouraging top predators such as bull sharks and tiger sharks which may have resulted in the high amount of fatalities. When compared to Florida, the 152 attacks that took place from 2011-2016 were all non-fatal which could be due to the fact that the attacks were inflicted by smaller species of shark. Additionally, increased urbanisation has caused increased water run-off which has created favourable hunting conditions for bull sharks due to the muddy inshore waters.
Perhaps the most significant factor in Reunion’s increase incidences of shark attacks is the deployment of another man-made intervention – baited drum lines. The aim of drum lines is to trap and kill as many sharks as possible which supposedly decreases the chances of shark attacks. However, experts have challenged this method and state that intentionally attracting sharks inshore is an ineffective approach to the issue.
The most common type of shark attack is a ‘hit and run’ attack. This is where sharks mistake humans for its regular prey and could be considered a case of mistaken identity since they only bite once. After one bite, the shark realises that the human is not the prey it once thought and immediately lets the victim go and does not return. From beneath the surface, humans may look like a seal to the shark which may result in an attack consisting of a single bite but, as David Shiffman puts it, “There are no sharks that would prefer to eat a human, given other options.” He goes on to say, “We’re just not on their menu.”
However, some shark attacks are intentional. The ‘bump and bite’ attacks where the shark will bump the victim prior to the bite, and ‘sneak’ attacks where the bite will occur with no warning are believed to result from feeding or antagonistic behaviour rather than mistaken identity. Large species of shark such as the white shark, bull shark and tiger shark are the sharks most commonly associated with these types of attack whereas smaller species of shark recognise that humans are too big to eat and are more likely to ignore them.
Persistent Fears and Tarnished Reputations
So why do sharks have such a fearsome reputation as monstrous, man-eating predators when they so rarely attack humans? George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research states that, as humans, we try to control our natural environment with infrastructures and use weapons to overpower land-based predators. When we are at sea, however, in a one-on-one situation, sharks win every time which scares us a little.
When we consider how many humans are killed by sharks each year on average (five) and compare that to the number of humans that are killing sharks each year which totals 100 million, it’s obvious who’s doing most of the attacking in this relationship. There are over 440 species of shark on the planet and only a couple of dozen of these species have ever been involved in shark attacks. From the evidence, it’s clear to see that sharks are not out to get us, and they actually have no interest in attacking humans.
The fact is, shark attacks – particularly shark attacks that lead to fatalities – are extremely rare. If you’re at the beach and you enter the water, the chances are that a shark isn’t far from you – and they know you are there. Sharks are majestic and curious animals that are largely misunderstood due to our lack of education and they will continue to die out until we educate ourselves and change our attitudes towards them.
Remember that sharks and humans co-exist every day. Six fatal shark attacks in a year is a mere fraction when we consider the amount of people entering the ocean annually in places like California, Hawaii, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, and anywhere else with good waves. They simply are not interested in eating humans and, if they were, there would be a lot more shark attacks than there are. Lightning, coconuts, toasters and hippos all claim the lives of much more people than sharks.
Tips on Staying Safe With Sharks
Here are some things you should do when you are involved in an unpleasant shark encounter. (as a surfer or diver)
- Maintain eye-contact.
- Stand your ground – don’t swim away and don’t swim towards them; show them you are not afraid.
- If sharks are checking you out, they tend to circle around you or swim straight towards you and turn away. Still stand your ground.
- Don’t act like prey and you won’t be preyed upon.
- When making your exit from the water, keep your eyes on the shark and move smoothly.
- If you are diving, try to stay vertical in an upright position as this is not associated with prey.
- If a shark approaches you for a bump and bite, push it away. Just know that if you touch their nose, their mouth will open. (bump and bites are not aggressive or fast movements)
- If a shark attacks, it will hunch its back and rush at you. Don’t play dead – this won’t work. Rather, take a sharp object and hit it as much as you can. Preferably on the nose (sensitive for a shark). Eyes and gills are very good too, but good luck finding those fighting off a shark.
Further Info and Links
There are a couple of products on the market which act as a deterrent for sharks and may help to keep you safe in the water;
SharkBanz 2 – This is one of the most popular shark repellents for surfers. It works to deter sharks without the use of batteries, chemicals, or electricity, rather, the technology relies on magnetic waves emitted by the band to disrupt the shark’s electro-receptors.
If you are a surfer you can also choose to surf with the Modom Shark leash, which uses the Shark Banz technology.
Shark Shield – A personal electronic device that produces an electromagnetic field to deter sharks. The deterrent system includes a sticker-thin adhesive decal with antenna electrodes that can be applied to the bottom of a surfboard.
If you’d like to learn more about the type of positive relationship that can be formed between humans and sharks, just follow some of the inspiring freediving Instagramers who dive with tiger sharks, bull sharks and great white sharks with no tanks or cages: Ocean Ramsey | Morne Hardenberg | Discoversharks | Sharks Daily
These accounts truly helped me understand shark behaviour. Understanding is the best way to overcome the fear of sharks. As the matter of fact, the more you know about sharks, the more you’ll be intrigued by their characters.
Check out Armand’s adventure dream – Tiger Shark Diving in the Bahamas.