SHARKS: THEY'RE BACK

by Whit Gibbons

July 12, 2015

Q: Why are shark bites so prevalent on both U.S. coasts this year, and how can someone prevent an attack?

A: Three reasons for the prevalence of shark bites come immediately to mind. First, more people are swimming in coastal areas than ever before. Second, environmental conditions of ocean waters and weather, conditions that may be unpredictable even with the most sophisticated climate models, can temporarily shift the feeding patterns of mobile marine animals. This means predators of various kinds could be attracted to an area because of unusual concentrations of certain prey.

But the most important explanation of all is that cell phones permit instant video opportunities. Today, before helping a buddy who is trying to escape a shark, some people are tempted to take a short video that would be suitable for the evening newscast. If your attempt at a wildlife documentary took too long because you were filming instead of rescuing, you always have the afterbite footage. Many minor bites we hear about on the national news would have gone unknown and unnoticed in years past. Today, few shark bites are likely to go unreported, including during and on the way to the hospital.

I have previously answered some questions about sharks with a review of the book "Sharks: The Animal Answer Guide" by Gene Helfman and George Burgess (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). The facts and rules of what to do have not changed, but they are worth repeating. One of the foremost questions any beachgoer might have is what are the odds of being attacked by a shark? The answer according to the book is simple and straightforward: In the United States, a person's chances of being attacked by a shark are less than 1 in 11 million. The chance of being killed is "less than 1 in 264 million." You are more likely to have your sunglasses stolen by a sea gull than to be eaten by a shark. Clearly, being attacked or killed by a shark while you're frolicking in the ocean should be quite low on your list of things to worry about at the beach.

As to why sharks attack people, the book presents facts and speculation. Some bites are attributed to defensive or aggressive responses by sharks in special situations. Some are believed to be actual feeding attempts. But whether the human was mistaken for a common prey item, such as a seal, or the shark was actually trying to feed on a human would be hard to determine. Experts believe that most people along U.S. coasts are bitten not by great whites or other well-known predatory species but by common blacktip sharks, which reach a length of less than 7 feet.

How do you lower your odds of being bitten by a shark? Some rules should fall in the "you didn't really need to tell me that" commonsense category, but based on news reports I've heard, some folks still need telling. Don't go in the water if you see shark fins. Don't touch a live shark unless you have already been attacked. Also, sharks can smell blood, so stay out of the water if you have an open cut; no sense advertising yourself as shark bait. And how about this? Don't swim near where people are fishing off a pier for sharks.

What do you do if a shark threatens you? Head toward shore however you can manage it - quickly and noisily or slowly and stealthily, whichever seems like it might work. If you have started to become a meal, yell as loud and long as you can. You might attract the right kind of help or even distract your attacker. And don't go down or be chewed on without a fight. Pound with your fists and kick a shark's nose or any other bodily part, except the teeth. Then, whatever the outcome, at least you won't look like a wimp when your struggle goes viral on YouTube.

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