How to avoid a shark attack

By AG Staff Writer 19 October 2011
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While shark attacks are relatively rare, there are things you can do to further reduce the risk.

AUSTRALIA IS THE largest island continent and about 85 per cent of the population lives within 50km of the coast. Our beach-loving culture means we share the ocean with many creatures, including sharks.

While statistics show that shark attacks in Australia remain unlikely – drowning is still more probable – there have been some high profile shark attacks in Western Australia throughout 2012.

Wherever you’re thinking of going out for a paddle, it’s important to be aware of safety measures. John West of the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, in Sydney, says that “no one beach is any more likely to be dangerous than any other.”

“The best prevention is common-sense related to where you swim and what activities you undertake whilst in the water,” says John, “and be aware of what may invite or provoke an attack.”

After all, shark nets and shark repellents are not fool-proof.

Shark attacks – the basics

Between the flags of patrolled beaches are the safest spots to swim – and keep to shallow water if you want to be particularly cautious. Shark attacks have been known to occur in less than a metre of water.

Of course, deeper water is necessary for ocean swimming or if you’re serious about water sports. Chris Neff, a PhD candidate from the University of Sydney who studies shark attacks, stresses that there are many variables to take into account before getting into deep water.

He groups together four broad factors that should be considered. “Think about [the ocean] as a dynamic ecosystem that involves your behaviour, shark behaviour, weather conditions and the ecosystem’s conditions,” he says.” All of these things really come together.”

Tips on avoiding shark attacks

1. Swim at beaches that are patrolled by surf life savers. “They are there to keep an eye on your safety, to look for signs of danger and to assist if you get into trouble,” says John who curates the Australian Shark Attack File.

2. Do not wear shiny swimwear or accessories and try to wear bland, darker colours. “It does matter what you’re wearing” says Chris, “Jewellery is a big no-no…[and] you certainly wouldn’t wear something that was flashy.” He also says to avoid wearing yellow and anything flesh-coloured, including white – sharks don’t see in colour, but in shades of black and white, using contrast to distinguish objects.

3. Do not enter the water where dangerous sharks commonly gather.

4. Avoid swimming, surfing or kayaking alone. Larger groups of people may deter a shark attack. Also, if someone is attacked they need to have someone help them get to shore. “Most shark fatalities happen from being bitten, followed by not getting into shore quick enough or not getting wrapped up and getting to hospital,” Chris says.

5. Do not swim in cloudy or turbid water. Sharks do not always have a good sense of sight and they may attack because they think you are prey.

6. Be aware of entering the water after a storm or heavy rainfall. Baitfish may have been stirred up and they will attract hungry sharks.

7. Don’t swim near drop-offs to deeper water or river mouths. Sharks tend to inhabit these regions.

8. Leave the water quickly and calmly if fish begin to gather in large schools, jump out of the water or behave erratically. These could be reactions from a predatory shark feeding nearby.

9. Avoid splashing and move smoothly in the water. While this often cannot be avoided, Chris says to be aware of relevant conditions such as “whether or not there are other attractants near you” – such as fishers or schools of baitfish – or even AC/DC music. If there are, then it is best to splash as little as possible.

10. Check deep water carefully before jumping in from a boat. “People have jumped on top of sharks,” says John.

11. Avoid swimming or surfing at dawn, dusk or night. These are typically the feeding times for a lot of sharks.

12. If you spot a shark, do not act aggressively. While some sharks can be intimidated by aggressive behaviour, others may react in fear and attack.

13. If a shark starts to approach you, prepare to defend yourself. “If an attack is imminent try to keep the shark in sight” says John, “And if it gets too close (close enough to touch) then any action you take may disrupt the attack pattern, such as hitting the shark on the nose, gouging at its eyes, making sudden body movements, [or] blowing bubbles…The one thing that I’ve consistently heard is most effective is gouging it [the shark] in the eye.”