With water, we have sharks: 8 shark safety tips

By Dr Blake Chapman November 26, 2018
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We are about to take a big, sweaty step into summer. With summer comes a number of reliable certainties: longer days, holidays, heat, and for many, beach time. The latter inevitably also brings with it a fear of sharks.

Fear of predators, or any situation that could potentially harm us, is very important. This fear, which we can thank our very earliest ancestors for developing, encourages less risky behaviour, and therefore less potential for injury or fatality. It is thanks to this fear (among other things) that the human species is still in existence today.

But how scared should we really be of sharks? It is true that anytime a person goes into a natural waterway that is connected to our oceans, there is a chance of an interaction with a shark. After all, the oceans are where sharks live; and they are an integral part of these ecosystems. But human interactions with sharks, and particularly negative interactions, are extremely rare.

We record about 10-20 bites in Australia every year. About one-quarter of these are more appropriately interactions, as no physical injuries result (although, admittedly, any close interaction with a potentially dangerous shark would be terrifying!). On the other hand, we sadly have one or two fatalities each year as a result of human interaction with sharks.

Statistically speaking, it has been a very average year in Australia for shark bites. We are sitting right in the middle of our annual range, with 16 unprovoked bites/interactions and one fatality. We’ve got five weeks left in the year; let’s do everything we can to keep this number from rising.

For many of us, the unlikely risk of shark interaction, as well as the variety of other potentially dangerous things that recreational water use can throw at us (rip currents, jellyfish, cone shells, etc), is not enough to prevent us from doing the activities we love. After all, we thrive on our beach culture and long for interaction with the sea. But luckily, we have an advantage over sharks – we have our intelligence.

Some of our sharks have evolved to be extraordinary predators, and, especially in the aquatic environment where humans are quite awkward and alien, we have little defence against these animals. Yet, there are a lot of things we can do even before stepping foot in the water to minimise the chance of a negative interaction. Shark risk aside, many of these things are what we should be doing anyway.

Most of these tips are probably quite well-known already, and some are just pure common sense. Still, this is the perfect time to just take a few minutes to remind yourself of how you can minimise your risk and think through some options for how you can more safely enjoy the water this summer.

Australia is a big place. We have long expanses of coastline, lots of aquatic environments – many of which are ideal for recreational activities, and a plethora of water-based activities to choose from. Therefore, not every tip will be suitable for everyone. But still, adopt the ones you can, and know that you are being proactive in looking out for your safety.

Understand the environment

This is especially important if you are visiting a place you have not been before, or don’t have extensive experience with – even if it’s just 100m away from your normal spot. Aquatic environments can present a range of risks and both the physical and biological components of these environments can be extremely variable. Know what potential risks could be present – look into what species of sharks might be in the area, and do some research into their behaviour and movement patterns in that location.

A great way to monitor shark movements and inform your decisions on when, where and how to use the water is to follow sites and apps that provide real-time alerts on shark activity. Some examples include the SharkSmart programs in Western Australia and New South Wales, the Dorsal Shark Reporting initiative and Shark Watch South Australia. You can also follow Surf Live Saving organisations for tips and alerts.

Swim at patrolled beaches

This is a given for people who are just wading in the water, and especially for those who are not strong swimmers. While swimming at patrolled beaches has more to do with simple safe swimming practice than sharks, it all comes down to using the water responsibly.

Life Savers are on the lookout for any potential risks to swimmers, and they have communication channels with a variety of other sources tasked with human safety. Plus, they are well prepared in the unlikely event that something does go wrong. They can provide immediate care, and quickly amass further specialised medical attention if needed. Immediate response and rapid medical attention can make a huge difference in the outcome of trauma events.

Don’t go in the water alone

If using a patrolled beach isn’t a feasible option, then ensure you are swimming, diving, surfing, or otherwise using the water, with other people (but not pets!). It is true, even in regards to sharks, that there is safety in numbers. Also, again, in the unlikely event that something does go wrong, there will be others there to assist and call for help.

Chose activity locations carefully

Avoid swimming too far off shore, or near drop-offs or in canals (especially after heavy rainfall). Also avoid locations that have a lot of fishing activity, as bait (and even hooked or netted fish) could serve as attractants to sharks. Similarly, don’t swim near large schools of fish (diving seabirds and dolphins can be great, easily visualised indicators of baitfish offshore), as this would present a valuable feeding opportunity for sharks. Also, don’t swim at places that are known to be key habitat areas for potentially dangerous sharks.

Maintain visibility

Sharks have a variety of great sensory systems. The hope is that they can use any number of their long- or medium-range sensory systems to recognise us as something they are not interested in before they need to rely on their short-range sensory systems (which include touch and taste!). Vision is the main one. This means don’t swim in dim light (dawn, dusk, or during the night) when visual capability could be compromised. Similarly, don’t swim in murky or turbid water for the same reason.

Don’t rely on regional mitigation measures

The extra protection that these measures afford is great, but keep in mind, none of our current technology is a failsafe method for preventing shark bites. Even when swimming at protected beaches, we still have a responsibility as individuals to act as safely and smartly as possible.

Trust your instincts

Humans have the ability to sense danger very quickly. We often interpret this as gut feeling, or instinct. Trust these feelings. If a situation doesn’t feel right, or doesn’t smell right, then don’t proceed. If you are constantly feeling uneasy, you won’t enjoy what you’re doing anyway. Find an alternative activity, and come back to the water another day, when you might feel more comfortable and confident.

Stay calm

If you do see a potentially dangerous shark, stay as calm as possible and leave the water. It’s also important to spread the word so that other people know to avoid the area.

Lastly, on days that the beach might be out, go and visit an aquarium. Spend some time gaining a better understanding of sharks; read the signage and learn something new! Watch them swim lazily through the water. Take the opportunity to really look at these animals and see if you can identify ways they are similar to humans.

Dr Blake Chapman is an expert in shark-human interaction and the author of Shark Attack: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear.

Related: How to survive a shark encounter