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Surviving a Shark Attack
-- By David Keeling
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.

According to the International Shark Attack File, out of the millions of people who took to the oceans worldwide in 1999, sharks made unprovoked attacks on only 58. That's good news, because it reveals the rarity of such incidents. Better news-if you can call it that-is that of those 58, only four attacks proved fatal.

That means that your risk of being attacked by a shark is almost unimaginably small. Nonetheless, because you can never be too prepared, we asked shark attack guru George H. Burgess, Director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, for his suggestions on avoiding and surviving a shark attack.

Why do sharks attack?

"Most attacks are probably cases of mistaken identity," Burgess began. "They're often perpetrated by small sharks in shallow waters." These sharks, he said, are "too small to be going after humans," and instead are likely "going after anything that's moving." In other words, if you find yourself confronting a shark dead-set on ravaging your thigh, it's not because it actually thinks of you as a six-foot buffalo wing; rather, it's simply confused you with its normal prey. That may not sound comforting, but it actually is; once the shark recognizes that you're either not a fish or one with severe hormonal problems, it will stop trying to eat you.

Sharks also attack for two other distinct reasons. While "mistaken identity" attacks represent the bulk of each year's incidents, in some, more unusual attacks, it's the human who's making the error. "Sharks sometimes attack divers," Burgess explained, "but that's usually a case of humans mistaking the warning signals sharks give when their territory has been violated."

The final type of attack occurs "when a larger species such as a white, bull, or tiger shark views a human as an appropriate prey item," noted Burgess, adding that these attacks are quite rare.

What happens in a shark attack?

Although shark attacks occur in a variety of different ways, Burgess described three types of attacks that sharks tend to make:

  • "Hit-and-Run" attacks: These attacks, which often occur near beaches, generally happen because the shark mistakes you for its usual food. "The shark usually makes a grab, lets go, and leaves the area," Burgess said. Happily, hit-and-run attacks rarely cause serious injuries.
  • "Sneak attacks": These more dangerous incidents happen in deeper waters in which you don't see the shark before it attacks. "Typically, there's no initial contact," Burgess noted, "and there's a chance of multiple bites."
  • "Bump and bite" attacks: In this situation, the shark circles and actually comes in contact with you before fully attacking. "The shark may be checking out the human to see how formidable a foe he or she is before attacking," said Burgess. Like the sneak attack, this type has the potential to result in serious injury or death.
What are the signs that a shark may attack?

Generally speaking, you must be stupid, drunk, or Jacques Cousteau to be swimming or surfing in an area in which dorsal fins commonly slice along the surface, but there are occasionally times when you suddenly realize that the waters around you are, in fact, shark infested. In that case, Burgess suggests watching for certain shark behaviors that may foreshadow an attack, including:
  • Erratic swimming
  • Swimming in tightening circles
  • Lowering of the dorsal fin
  • Rubbing of the belly against the seafloor
  • Hunching of the back
"Just as a dog's tail lowers and the hair on its back raises when it's being aggressive, so too do sharks give signs of their attitude," noted Burgess, "It's just that people don't recognize them as easily."

How do you escape a shark attack?

"Well, obviously you want to get out of there fast," Burgess said, "but you should try to make your escape as quietly and evenly as possible." He explained that sharks are attracted to splashing and are likely to be enthused by further activity, so the calmer you can make your panicked retreat, the better. "Of course, you want to do whatever you can to get away quickly if the shark's following you, whether or not that means splashing," he added.

What if you witness an attack?

"There are very few cases in which a rescuer suffered while trying to help a victim," said Burgess. "Actually, helping a victim probably decreases the chances of a second attack, because the additional person may spook the shark and drive it away." So if your friend is beyond the breakers and rehearsing for the next "Jaws" movie, try to overcome your natural instincts and dive in to help.

Are there ways to reduce the risk of an attack?

Again, your chance of being attacked by a shark is extremely small, but there are ways to further reduce your risk:
  • Stay in groups. Sharks are more likely to attack isolated individuals.
  • Don't swim too far out. This isolates you and also puts you farther from help.
  • Don't swim at night or twilight. Sharks are most active at these times.
  • Don't swim while menstruating or bleeding. Sharks are attracted to blood.
  • Don't wear shiny jewelry. To a shark, it makes you look like a fish.
  • Avoid waters used by sport or commercial fishers. Sharks, like fishermen, go where their food does (diving seabirds are also a good sign that "food" is near).
  • Porpoise-sightings do not indicate the absence of sharks. In fact, porpoises and sharks often eat the same foods.
  • Be cautious near underwater drop-offs and between sandbars; sharks often lurk in those areas.
"Shark attacks are kind of like car accidents," Burgess remarked. "You only hear about the fatal ones." Today, it's extremely unlikely that you'll be attacked by a shark at all, and even more unlikely that the injuries from an attack will prove fatal. Not only that, but lately sharks have more to worry about than hunting for humans. "In reality," said Burgess, "shark bites man is being replaced by man bites shark; each year, humans kill roughly 90 million sharks, while sharks kill only about 10 people."

So while you're considering how to escape the monster in the water, perhaps you should also consider who the monster in the water really is. Of course, you may want to wait until you get back on the beach.


Burgess, George H. Interview. October 16, 2000

Burgess, George H. "Reducing the Risk of Shark Attacks." 1991. Accessed October 16, 2000.