How to survive a shark attack

The easy answer is to stay out of the water. That takes all the fun out of life though, so there has to be a better answer. Sadly, once a shark has decided to attack, your chances of survival drastically decrease. Nature’s evolutionary killing machine is very good at its job, and even if you’re just injured, it’s usually not pretty. And the number of unprovoked attacks in Australia has increased significantly in the last 20 years, with 2000-2009 having nearly 3 times as many attacks as the decade from 1980-1989. Don’t think that your next beach trip will be a scene right out of JAWS though, as there are still only ~12 attacks per year in ‘Straya, and ~1 death per year. So how do you go about avoiding an attack? Based on this paper, there are differences in geography, season, and human behavior that might make a difference. Anything that can trend this number back down will make watersports safer.

Certainly, the sharks historically known as dangerous are the ones to worry about. The white, bull, and tiger shark are the only species identified to cause fatalities in the last 20 years. All of those were from sharks longer than 2m as well. but don’t let the smaller ones fool you. The smallest shark involved in an incident was merely 0.4m long. Juvenile whites can be mistaken for whaler species, and a smaller bite doesn’t always mean a safer one. Wobbegong sharks have also been recorded as causing injuries. However, the white shark is still the most dangerous, comprising less than 1/3 of the attacks, but more than 2/3 of the fatalities.

The simple geographic answer is “don’t swim where the sharks are.” Well, that’s tough to do in Australia, where sharks have been seen swimming down the street after floods. The figure below shows the location of the 592 recorded unprovoked incidents over the 218 year span they’ve been keeping records. However, it there are safe spots. Many beaches in well populated areas have shark-control programs. I won’t get into the ethics behind culling, but the shark nets seem to be effective, and certainly are a simple method to cut attacks. However, as demonstrated in the article, people are moving and recreating in areas without shark-control in increasing numbers, and the number of attacks has gone up as the population grows into those areas. Also, the increase in watersports in brackish water has increased the number of attacks that are related to bull sharks.

shark attacks 1791-2009 Australia
Shark attacks 1791-2009 Australia (black dot = attack)

It is also often stated that being in the water at dawn and dusk increases your risk of attack. Well, based on the data in this paper, it can’t be proven or disproven. The overwhelming majority of cases occur from 7am to 8pm, but they don’t break down times down to seasons, so you can’t determine attacks based on sunrise and sunset.

Is there a seasonal variation then? Most attacks occur in the summer, but that’s when most people are in the water, so that’s not helpful. Sharks do show migratory patterns following their prey, and warmer water months still have more attacks. There has been an increase in cold water attacks though, as people are starting to don wetsuits to spend more time in the water. 49% of attacks in the last twenty years have been on people wearing a wetsuit. This is an interesting statistic, because the rates of attacks while diving have stayed stable, but the rates for attacks while surfing nearly doubled from preceding period.

One important behavior that has been shown to increase the likelihood of an attack is being near their natural prey. Schools of fish slightly increase risks, but being near seals dramatically increases being attacked. So if you’ve got the option, don’t surf, swim, or dive near seal colonies.

Victims were only aware of a shark in the vicinity about 20% of the time, so keeping an eye out may be of some use. Don’t expect much of a warning, either, as sharks “bumped” or swam very close to a victim before an attack only 14% of the time.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple answer on how to survive a shark attack. Less than 10% of the incidents report fighting back. Gouging the eyes, hitting the gills, or shoving things in the mouth may help though, as it made the shark stop or leave about 2/3 of the time. I can’t imagine that nobody fought back in the other cases, so this is another area where the data isn’t definitive.

Still, as explained in the paper, you are more than 80 times more likely to drown than to die from a shark attack. The risks are still extremely low, but taking a few safety measures can make them even lower.

West JG. Changing patterns of shark attacks in Australian waters. Marine and Freshwater Research 2011;62:744-754.

Further Reading

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Wilderness Medicine

Emergency physician with interests in wilderness and prehospital medicine. Medical Director of the Texas State Aquarium, Padre Island National Seashore, Robstown EMS, and Code 3 ER | EBM gone Wild | @EBMGoneWild |

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