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 of a shark bite, and more in 20-plus video lessons in Ocean Ramsey’s Guide to Sharks and Safety. Early access pricing expires soon, so enroll now.
I’m a surfer. I grew up surfing. I love surfing. It’s really fun. Generally, you don’t really want to see a shark when you’re surfing. I know that they’re there, and I know that from diving with sharks. It definitely makes me feel more comfortable as a surfer, but there are areas and environmental conditions that I know I should avoid.
I also will sometimes paddle out at places that are right outside of a fishing harbor when the light is low, and these are situations that I know are not good, but I also realize the risk that I’m taking by going to play in their environment, in their home, in their backyard, in their kitchen, that I’m entering a wild environment, and that if I’m bit, I’m not going to blame a shark. Just like if I wanted to go play soccer in the middle of an African Savanna in front of some lions, if I get bit, I’m not going to be like, “Oh my gosh, I got bit by a lion. Let’s go kill the lions.”
I think many people have the mindset that we own the ocean, and I would love to see that change. If anything, a lot more surfers actually have the realization that it’s a wild environment we’re playing in and we have to respect it – just like you have to be respectful of the waves and the currents. Drownings kill over 3,500 people a year in the U.S. alone. Jellyfish kill more than 40 people. Sharks kill 10 people annually in the entire world, so it’s pretty microscopic in what you should actually be concerned about as a surfer.
But there are things that you can do to further reduce your chance of an adverse encounter with a shark. Here are 10 of them below. I hope you find these useful, and check out my course on Sharks and Safety where I share more details on tips for surfers, swimmers, divers, spearfishermen, and general oceangoers to avoid adverse encounters with sharks.
The most important thing you can do is consider environmental conditions prior to paddling out. Avoid areas where people are fishing. Avoid surfing outside of river mouths where you might have fish coming in and out. Or if fresh water just built up in a river mouth and then broke through, and you have all this dead, decaying material spilling out, you might have species like tiger sharks, who are actually scavengers, who love that stuff. They might be coming into that murky water to scavenge off of the dead, decaying animals that are flushing out. So that’s not really a great place to go surfing.
If you choose to go surf in these places, just go in with the mindset and the realization that sharks may be present.
1. The most important thing you can do is factor in environmental conditions like water clarity. Avoid murky water and low light. Those handicap sharks’ vision, which is one of their most critical senses.
2. Generally, you don’t want to be the person that’s furthest out, away from shore. Right where the outside sets are starting to hit there’s generally a little bit of a drop-off, and sharks will sometimes hunt along ledges using their countershading. Countershading is that dark shading, the darker color on the top of the shark, you’ll notice that they’re slightly lighter on the bottom. Many species have that, and they’ll actually hunt along the bottom, and they’ll be watching things on the surface.
3. Size. Size is a big thing for sharks. Generally, the larger shark is the more dominant individual, and so if you’re on a longer board, you’re a lot less likely to be approached than if you’re on a shortboard or if you’re on a boogie board. Size is a substantial indicator of dominance for sharks.
4. To potentially avoid an adverse interaction while sitting on your board and waiting for waves, I’d advise regularly turning and changing your direction. Sharks are so sensitive to where you’re looking and where you’re not looking. When you’re constantly changing your direction, you’re acting more like a predator. You’re looking around like a predator, and you’re not making it clear where is the back and where they can sneak up on you. The species that are the most human-concerned would generally be ambush-style predators. They’d want to come up from below or from the back. It’d be really advantageous for you to constantly turn and constantly look around.
5. Avoid wearing bright colored items or anything shiny or reflective that might reflect light in an eye-catching way in the ocean. Avoid anything that would appear more like a potential prey item.
6. If you wanted to further decrease your chances of being approached, avoid painting your railings on the underside, because that outlines your size, and it’s easier for sharks to see you with the contrast. That makes it easier for them to approximate your size. Chances are, you’re probably smaller than a shark that’s actually going to approach you while you’re surfing.
7. If you want to paint anything on your board, I would advise that you paint giant eyes on the underside of your board. Eyes are a predatory thing, and eye contact is actually a huge deterrent in sharks.
8. Fishing harbors, jetties, piers, and river outlets all are more likely to attract sharks. I realize that there are a lot of really good surf breaks right outside of these locations, but know that the likelihood of a shark swimming in the vicinity is higher here. Storm drains are also an area to avoid.
9. If you’re in a location where there’s a big sea lion population or a high density of turtles, or if you know there are fish spawning or migrating, the chances of encountering a shark in these areas is higher.
10. If you do see a shark when you’re surfing, please exit the water immediately. You don’t need to thrash around and panic, but if you do see a dorsal or you hear somebody say that they saw a shark, you should leave the area. And I would recommend that you leave that area for a minimum of two days. If there is a shark in an area, it may be searching for that potential prey item or a dead item that they’re smelling like a dead turtle or dead fish or whatever it is, for a number of days. Give them their space. Respect them for their role as apex predators.
Learn more tips on 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 of a shark bite, and more in 20-plus video lessons in Ocean Ramsey’s Guide to Sharks and Safety. Early access pricing expires soon, so enroll now.