Editor’s Note: Learn how to minimize chances of an adverse shark encounter as well as critical information about shark behavior, shark personalities, shark language, what to do in the unlikely event a shark bites you, and more during 20-plus video lessons in Ocean Ramsey’s Guide to Sharks and Safety.
Take comfort knowing that there are less than 10 human fatalities globally each year from shark-related incidents. I believe that most of these bites are due to mistaken identity. There are often environmental conditions that come into play like murky water. Maybe there’s a dead animal on the reef near them. Or maybe it’s just outside of a fishing harbor, where you have a lot of fish migrating through. And it’s common knowledge that surfers’ silhouettes potentially resemble seals or turtles. No matter the reason, there are plenty of variables that can put people at risk of an adverse interaction with a shark. And luckily, there are many things you can do to minimize those risks. But I also want to cover what to do in the event you or somebody in the water with you is bitten by a shark. Here are some things you should keep in mind:
1. Don’t pull away. The serrated teeth will do more damage to your limbs.
2.Strike the eyes or gills of a shark if it bites you. Both are sensitive.
3. The shark’s temple, near its eyes, is also highly sensitive. Look for the soft spot on the head, the little temple area. Push on that
4. Again, go for the gills or potentially for the eyes if the temple area isn’t available.
5. The underbelly is your last option. This is another sensitive area for sharks and they don’t like to expose it to other predators.
6. Keep in mind that sharks do not like physical contact, generally.
7. If a shark begins to shake back and forth after biting, latch on to it to minimize its leverage and the amount of flesh it’s able to remove.
8. Remember that adrenalin typically helps with blood shunt.
9. Do your best to keep your heart rate low.
10. After the interaction you should quickly apply a tourniquet above the bite. Remember, it’s always life over limb.
11. Maintain a positive, determined outlook.
12. Keep warm in order to prevent going into shock.
13. Have someone call emergency medical services.
14. Having somebody in the water assisting you can be lifesaving. With that in mind, surf, swim, dive, and enjoy the ocean with a partner whenever possible. The people that don’t survive attacks are often by themselves.
As a surfer, chances are you probably wouldn’t see a shark coming before an attack. But suppose you did see it coming and had the opportunity and awareness to place your hand on top of the shark’s head. Shoving the head down and away from you would be an ideal scenario. Do not try to punch the shark in this case. While many people do think they should instinctively punch sharks in the face, it’s actually not the best response and should be reserved for encounters when pushing the animal’s head away from you isn’t an option.
Why is this? Incident reports often reveal the hands of victims being mangled when attempting to punch a shark. So, rule that out if it can be avoided.
Again, do not pull back if you are being bitten by the shark. They have angled, serrated teeth, and as the shark bites down, the teeth actually create a sawing motion. Therefore, pulling your body away from a shark while any part of your body is clenched in their jaws will worsen any injuries, tearing more and more tissue along the way
The eyes of a shark are very sensitive. Most species have a nictitating membrane where the lower eyelid actually lifts up to protect the eyes, but you can actually push through that with enough pressure and force. It’s not really that thick. White sharks, for example, can actually roll their eyes back as a defense mechanism to protect them.
Other Sensitive Areas for Sharks
The gills of just about all species are very sensitive. Sharks generally don’t want to be touched around the gills, and I generally avoid touching them there.
There is a really, really soft spot along a shark’s head similar to the placement of our own temple. They are likely to move away from any kind of pressure placed here. I have even been in situations with 16-foot tiger sharks cornering photographers and driving them down toward the reef, and by diving down to them and very gently applying pressure to this area I was able to drive them away and diffuse the situation.
As mentioned, another part of the body that’s very sensitive is a shark’s underbelly. I’ve noticed while diving with tiger sharks and great whites that they get very uncomfortable if I position myself underneath their belly. They’ll turn their body to make sure they can keep an eye on me, just as they do when at risk of exposing their belly to any other predator.
I also often see a shark swim beside or even behind another shark. If they touch each other, one shark will instinctively lurch away very, very quickly. So, if you’re actually making physical contact with a shark — with any other part of its body — chances are it’s going to just release you and swim away.
Take comfort knowing that shark attacks are generally a single bite and release. Sharks do have taste buds so if they do bite they’re going to think, “Ohh, gross! What is this?” They realize very fast they aren’t biting into a fatty, nutrient-rich seal or turtle.
Learn how to minimize chances of an adverse shark encounter as well as essential information about shark behavior, shark personalities, shark language, what to do if a shark bites you, and more during 20-plus video lessons in Ocean Ramsey’s Guide to Sharks and Safety.