How to Avoid Being Eaten by a Shark
If you based your idea of reality on mainstream cinema then the world would be a crazy place. The underdog would always win, we’d be surrounded by aliens, the guy would always get the girl and anyone stupid enough to get in the ocean would sooner or later be eaten by a shark. Of course shark attacks do happen but statistically it is more likely you’ll die from an accident involving a bucket (I’ll let your imagination run with that). As the possibility of a shark attack exists, no matter how remote, let’s take a look at how we can help avoid becoming fish food.
The cases where sharks knowingly attack human beings with a view to gobbling one of us up are few and far between. In 2015, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) reported a spike in global shark attacks, the result being six deaths around the world for the whole year. Now let me be clear, I am not undermining the tragedy associated with these incidents but the point I am trying to make by getting that number out early on is this – during 2015, how many people around the world entered a part of the ocean which may be inhabited by sharks? Between swimmers, paddlers, boaters, kayakers, surfers, divers, snorkelers, skinny dippers and so on, there’s no way we can accurately speculate on that number, but you get the drift, it would be a lot. The number would be so big that when you put it next to the number six you’d have to agree that chances of being eaten by a shark are pretty slim.
Thankfully, sharks don’t typically go for humans, but in that same year of 2015 there were 98 unprovoked attacks around the world, 92 of which were non-fatal, so what about those? If you take a look at the ISAF data, patterns start to emerge. One such pattern shows how often surfers and kayakers are attacked briefly, but then if able, are left to scramble out of the water.
The theory is that the types of sharks that like to attack upwards see the silhouette of a surfer paddling to catch a wave and mistake it for a seal or something. As such, the shark goes for what they think is lunch, takes a bite, then upon realising it wasn’t what they thought it was they spit it out and move along in the search of some real food. Mistaken identity it may be, but that does nothing to ease the pain of the person who just got nibbled. Apparently, sharks can’t see colour, but they can misinterpret contrasting clothing patterns and shiny jewellery for small fish, especially in murky water.
Tip No 1 to avoid getting eaten by a shark – try not to look like shark food.
Live & Let Live
I’m gonna cite ISAF data again here, it does make for some pretty interesting reading. If you’d like to see this first hand then you can do so here www.sharkattackfile.net just click on the “Incident Log” tab. The way these guys cut their data is to first look at alleged attacks (164 cases in 2015). They then whittle this number down to unprovoked, confirmed attacks which is where we get our 98 from (worldwide in 2015). Under “provoked attacks” we can find all kinds of things like fishermen who have caught a shark and then been bit while it was fighting for its life on their boat (funny that huh?) The section also features spear fishermen who have shot a shark underwater and then got bit, again, do I really need to offer advice as to how to avoid this? At this point I am reminded of the incredible footage which you can see below. For whatever reason, this guy had an interest in kissing nurse sharks. The video shows him trying to do this, but I guess the act was non-consensual as the shark sets about biting the diver’s mouth, fortunately for him he managed to get his lips sewn back on.
Tip No 2 to avoid getting eaten by a shark – Don’t, shoot, spear, attack, molest or force sexual acts upon them.
Be my Chum
Sharks have an incredible sense of smell and although the extent of this is often exaggerated, they are able to detect blood from quite a way away. The smell of blood attracts the shark and makes it come closer as it looks for food. This well know behaviour leads us to chumming which is when people toss bloody meat or fish into the water to draw in sharks.
If enough chum is in the water then, like other predators, sharks can get sent into a feeding frenzy – a state where they become overwhelmed by the amount of food readily available. This state creates competitive behaviour as the predators race each other to get as much of the available chum as possible, a kind of “bite now think later” type of deal. On the same note, surfers are often warned not to surf near fishing boats as they may well be chumming the water to entice the fish to start nibbling.
So why would you chum the water and then jump in it? Well one reason would be if you were doing a Cage Dive. The idea here is that you float in a cage while the water around you is chummed and is particularly common for people who want to be up close to watch a great white in action. There have been stories in recent years of sharks managing to get into the cage, which can’t have been much fun at the time for the divers. Take a look at the clip below where divers have to escape out of a cage that a shark had managed to get into, then swim through the shark infested water to clamber up onto the boat. The real crazy part of this one is where the second diver gets snagged by the cage on his way out but then freed by the shark as it tries to bite him.
Accidental chumming can also happen. This would be when a scuba diver or freediver is out in the water spearfishing and whatever it is they catch, slowly starts leaking out blood into the water.
If you take a look at the video below, you can see a brief clip of this happening to me, I’m the guy with the rebreather and the bucket of fish. Fortunately for me the lady who filmed this and her buddy (the other photographer in the clip) were both aware of why the shark was behaving uncharacteristically and circling me. As such, they stayed close (safety in numbers) and used their camera strobes to keep the shark at a safe distance. Due to my guardian angels’ quick thinking, I managed to avoid the worst case scenario here which would have been to drop the bucket load of lionfish. No real drama, thanks Cindy & Diane for that one!
Tip No 3 to avoid getting eaten by a shark – don’t surround yourself in chum.
Video by Diane Randolph
And finally, the controversial topic of shark feeds. The idea here is that divers can sit in an area of the sea where people who organise the event feed sharks. The attraction is a combination of watching an apex predator eat but also having the abundance of sharks around you, up close and personal without any cages, glass or whatever.
I refer to this behaviour as controversial as there are mixed opinions in the dive community as to whether they are good, bad or ugly.
In the blue corner, common arguments against feeding in no particular order:
- It generates an association between divers and shark food.
- It is argued that sharks and other predators who are fed can behave in an aggressive manner to divers when they don’t have food.
- Sharks lose their defensive instincts and wariness of humans if fed.
- Sharks may lose their abilities and instincts to hunt if reliant on handouts.
- Many divers embrace an ethos to just take pictures and leave bubbles.
In the red corner, practitioners of shark feeds may argue:
- These activities introduce people to sharks and help dispel the misconception that they are irrationally dangerous.
- They promote education about marine life and in turn assist conservation efforts.
- There are no real studies that show negative behavioural impacts on the sharks from being fed.
Whatever your take on the feeding debate is, one thing’s for sure, like all areas of the dive industry, there are good and bad operators so…..
Tip No 4 to avoid getting eaten by a shark – if you do go to watch them be fed out in the open, make sure you go with an accomplished operator.
Having had the pleasure of diving with many different kinds of sharks on many different occasions, I can say that the ISAF statistics don’t surprise me. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, it is very unlikely you’ll get eaten by a shark. If however, you want to improve your chances a little bit more then beyond the obvious of not antagonising a shark, don’t dress up like its food, behave like its food, or surround yourself with its food.
Happy shark encounters!
About the Author: Drew McArthur is a professional dive instructor and boat captain currently working at Divetech on Grand Cayman. Since his first dive over 20 years ago, he has found himself in all kinds of underwater environments from golf ponds on the side of a snowy Welsh mountain to the tropical paradise he has now become accustomed to. A fanatic of all things tech, one of the main things Drew loves about Grand Cayman is the accessibility of such premier dive sites. Check out Drew’s blog here.