Advice to Those Who Work or Play in

Waters Inhabited by White Sharks

The ocean is a wonderful place, a little-explored part of our planet overflowing with esthetic and gastronomic delights, crackling with the electric promise of adventure and discovery. For the naturalist, the ocean offers an astonishing diversity of strange and marvelous living creatures. But we must never allow ourselves to forget that we are but visitors to this vast liquid realm. The ocean is also an extremely powerful, utterly indifferent, and potentially dangerous place and for the incautious, unobservant, or foolhardy it can be downright lethal.

Of all the creatures that roam the sea, the White Shark is perhaps the most notorious and feared. But for all its infamy, the actual likelihood of being attacked by a White shark is very, very slight. The likelihood of being killed by a White Shark is even less. Of all the risks sea-going humans face, drowning is by far the most likely. The ocean itself is much more dangerous than any shark. Therefore, the single most important safety rule for working or playing in the sea is to know one's physical and experiential limits and stay well within them. This simple, common-sense principle greatly reduces the risk of most marine hazards. Although statistically the White Shark represents only a minor threat to humans in the sea, it is in reality a potentially very dangerous wild animal. But there are simple, grass-roots things one can do to reduce his or her risk of being attacked by a White Shark.  Much of the advice that follows is drawn from the published work of Ralph Collier of the Shark Research Committee.

  1. Never enter the sea alone, whether swimming, diving, surfing, kayaking, or whatever. A team of two or more people have a far better chance of seeing an approaching White Shark and the mere presence of one's companion(s) may deter a White Shark from attacking. If a White Shark were to attack, assistance in fending off the shark and if necessary rescue, will be close at hand.

  2. Ensure that all participants in your group's activity have attained certification in CPR, marine rescue and advanced first aid techniques. Always carry with you an effective means of controlling bleeding such as a 3-foot (1-metre) length of surgical tubing for use as a tourniquet. Before each marine activity:

    1. ensure that at least two non-participants know in what activity your group will be participating, where it is going, and when each of you expects to return home,

    2. review each of your companions' experience level with respect to the planned activity (novice, experienced, advanced, certification rating, etc.), and

    3. decide upon separation and emergency procedures all of you agree to follow for the duration of your group's activity.

  1. Avoid areas where White Shark attacks have occurred at the same time of year or where White Sharks have recently been seen. White Sharks seem to be fairly regular in their seasonal movements and often return to feed in places where they previously had been successful. Avoid areas immediately adjacent to pinniped (seal and sea lion) rookeries or haul-out sites and river mouths during local fish spawning runs. Avoid areas where a White Shark had been seen only hours before: White Sharks may linger for several days or weeks in areas offering particularly rich feeding.

  2. If collecting marine animals of any type, remove them from the water immediately following their capture. To retain abalone, hooked or speared fish, etc. in the water may elicit unwelcome attention or competitive aggression from a White Shark. If a White Shark seems to contest your possession of captured marine animals, relinquish them immediately: in the ocean, a White Shark has every advantage over a human. Retaining a prize catch or a bit of seafood is absolutely not worth risking one's life and limb over and besides, one can replace a lost catch far more easily than a lost body part.

  3. Be alert to any unusual activity in the immediate area. Highly localized areas featuring a great deal of fish leaping and bird plunge-diving could indicate a concentrated source of rich feeding, which may draw hungry or highly stimulated White Sharks. The contrary situation of an abnormal absence of fishes or other marine life could also indicate impending danger. Fishes, pinnipeds, and other sea creatures are exquisitely attuned to subtle cues given by a hunting predator, and their sudden disappearance could indicate a White Shark is stalking prey in the immediate area. Trust your instincts: if something about the environment doesn't 'feel' right, leave the water immediately.

  4. If you are being slowly circled or otherwise visually investigated by a White Shark, maintain eye contact with the animal at all times: do your best to let the shark know that you are fully aware that it is there and cannot be caught off-guard. Divers may want to carry a 3- to 4- foot (1- to 1.2-metre) long, highly visible object such as a length of white PVC tube or a brightly colored speargun to increase his or her apparent sphere of influence and help keep the shark at a respectful distance. Such an object, pointed at and tracking the movements of a passing White Shark can punctuate your awareness of it. Should an exploratory mouthing or aggressive attack occur, an elongate conspicuous object may draw the shark's attention to itself rather than to you, granting an added margin of bodily safety. Do not, however, attempt to use such an object as a weapon, as it may incite the shark to attack you.

  5. Do not, under any circumstances, provoke a White Shark, no matter how small or harmless it may seem. Touching a free-swimming White Shark, poking or spearing it, riding it or holding its tail are very likely to incite defensive attack. Avoid maneuvering a White Shark into a trapped position between yourself an any obstacle, such as a beach, sandbar, reef, or possibly even a boat. Respect a White Shark's idiosphere (personal space), a roughly spherical region surrounding it to a radius of about two body lengths, which it will defend aggressively if continually violated. A trapped or persistently 'crowded' White Shark may attempt to escape by attacking its tormentor. Make no mistake about it: White Sharks are amazingly powerful animals and even a small individual can inflict serious possibly fatal injuries to a human.

  6. Divers should continually check the depths as they ascend, scanning for the possibility of a White Shark attack from below and behind. In preparing to exit the water, divers should make a submerged close approach to the dive step/ladder to avoid swimming at the surface. Due to the optics of seawater, the true size and shape of a diver at the surface can be obscured, possibly eliciting an exploratory nip from a curious White Shark. Due to the fearsome efficiency of a White Shark's jaws and teeth, even a relatively gentle gastronomic experiment can be devastating. Although all-out feeding attacks by White Sharks are relatively rare, they do occur from time to time. White Sharks seem to be very aware of a diver's eyes, and simply being spotted before contact is made may be enough to cause a shark to abort an attack to which it had not yet fully committed itself.

  7. If you are attacked by a White Shark, try to remain calm and rational. Keep the shark in sight and in front of you, tracking and responding to its every move. Use discretion in making aggressive movements toward or attempting to wound the shark available data suggest that a White Shark is more likely to remain in the area or launch subsequent attacks if the victim resists or retaliates. If the shark's pectoral fins are depressed (held stiffly downward) and its movements seem quick and agitated, keep the animal in sight and try to increase the distance between you and it, noting its reaction. If the shark seems to relax somewhat, continue this tactic while heading toward your pre-planned exit site.

  8. If one of your companions is attacked by a White Shark, try to remain calm and rational. Available data strongly suggest that rescuers are almost never attacked, and their approach may well induce the shark to withdraw or depart the scene. Keep the shark in sight for as long as possible; if you are wearing a diver's mask, keep it on so that you can see the shark as clearly as possible. As you rescue the victim, reassure him or her that everything is going to be fine. Make every effort to control the victim's bleeding as soon as possible, even before he or she is removed from the water. Use pressure points to help staunch the blood flow. If you do not have a tourniquet, improvise: use the victim's mask strap or cut a strip from your own wetsuit. Do not remove the victim's wetsuit, as it may limit bleeding and help hold damaged tissue in place. Your clear and quick thinking can make the difference between life and death for the victim.

  9. Once the victim is removed the water, contact the nearest emergency medical response team dial 911 in most countries and state the extent of the victim's injuries as thoroughly and accurately as possible and indicate the nature of the marine activity at the time of the attack (to allow the EMR team to bring the appropriate case-specific equipment, such as a recompression chamber in the event of barotrauma incurred as a result of the attack). If at all possible, bring medical aid to the victim rather than vice versa, to help reduce the complicating effects of shock. Keep the victim warm and hydrated with cold water or fruit juice; do not give the victim beverages containing caffeine or alcohol. Have the victim's identification available when the EMR team arrives. Do not disassemble the victim's gear, so that no data will be lost to investigators.

  10. Accept that entering the ocean always carries with it certain inherent risks including the possibility of being attacked by a White Shark and that the onus is on you to be as cautious and well prepared as possible. Realize that simply seeing a White Shark nearby does not mean that an attack is imminent. In the unlikely event that an incident occurs, know that most White Shark attacks result in wounds that are readily survivable.

The White Shark has an overwhelmingly nasty reputation, all out of proportion to the actual frequency and ferocity of its attacks on humans. If it were possible to know all the incidences in which a White Shark visually investigated a human being in the water without attacking, it seems likely that many more people have been very close to White Sharks without their knowledge probably more and closer than they'd care to know. Statistically, the White Shark is not a significant threat to human life and limb. But in truth some individuals under some circumstances are highly dangerous. The most frightening thing about White Sharks is our profound ignorance of which individuals are likely to be dangerous under what conditions.

If you encounter a White Shark while working or playing in the sea, odds are that it will swim past you slowly once or twice to investigate, then move on calmly and without incident. But you must not count on it. Do nothing to provoke the shark but maintain visual contact with it. Prepare yourself, physically and mentally, for the very worst of possibilities. The mere presence of a White Shark in your vicinity does not mean an attack is imminent. But never allow yourself to forget that the White Shark is a potentially dangerous wild animal and an encounter with one is not to be taken lightly. The White Shark is a powerful predator, equipped with maneuverability, sensors, and weapons honed through millions of years of evolution. Your only defense is whatever common sense you've managed to cultivate in your lifetime.

Enjoy the ocean, by all means. But be aware of what's going on around you and respond intelligently. More than that, you cannot do. For we are only visitors here, in this wonderful, alien place. Best to avoid drawing unwelcome attention from The Landlord.


Important New Book on Shark Attacks!

The culmination of four decades' of research by my friend and colleague Ralph Collier, President of the Shark Research Committee, this book is the first scientific study of every verified shark attack that occurred along the Pacific Coast of North America during the 20th Century.  Vivid accounts of attacks by survivors, rescuers, and witnesses are punctuated with chilling, never-before published photos.  Patterns in shark attacks are identified, possible motivations for attacks are discussed, and activity-specific safety guidelines for swimmers, divers, surfers, and sea kayakers are offered.  The individual case histories are fascinating; the general conclusions and safety guidelines are applicable word-wide.  If you are interested in Great Whites or shark attacks, this is a Must Have book.


ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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