Great white shark: it is not impossible to survive the predator's powerful and lethal jaws

No one goes looking for a fight with a shark. Some of the most ancient predators on earth - sharks - are cunning, powerful, and lethal when they intend to be, arousing in humans what, at worst, manifests as crippling fear - galeophobia - and, at best, a healthy aversion.

Unprovoked shark attack incident numbers are steadily climbing each decade, and we're left to wonder what's going on and what we surfers can do about it.

It's no secret that our sustained human activity has dramatically contributed to the changing climate.

As things warm up on land, our oceans absorb the majority of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases.

This creates atypical interspecies contact, as hot people on the land flock to the water to cool down while discombobulated sea creatures migrate along new thermal channels in the sea in search of food and breeding grounds.

The more these warm water channels fluctuate and change, the more likely it is that our favorite surf spots will become temporary hubs for temperature-sensitive creatures such as krill.

Where krill go, seals will follow, with sharks hot on their heels and, sometimes, a human thrown unexpectedly into the mix.

So what should you do if you find yourself on the receiving end of a scheming shark's hungry intentions?

Shark-infested waters: surf at your own risk | Photo: Loco Steve


Every time you paddle out, you are a visitor to the wild, dynamic ecosystem that is the sea. Respect it. Don't litter or destroy natural features. Leave only footprints.

Respect the shark. This is his home. If he is hunting near the shore, there is a good reason for it, and no, he's not hunting for humans.

Most shark attacks on humans are cases of mistaken identity, as wetsuits and surfboards can make a human in the water look a lot like a shark's prey - the seal.

Sharks can also get pretty territorial when food is around and see a human as potential competition.

A warning bite, under the circumstances, might seem reasonable to a hungry predatory fish.


The sea is not a human habitat, and no matter how drawn we are to it, we don't have unlimited access.

Know when it's better to stay onshore by making a few informed observations:

Where are you? Warm, tropical waters are the year-round home of species like nurse, bull, and tiger sharks, the latter being two of the four most likely to attack humans in the water.

Bull sharks have the unique ability to tolerate fresh water and are often found hunting in or near river mouths, preying on many different types of fish and marine animals.

Great white sharks hang out in more temperate waters but can swim into warmer seas if food lures them there.

The shark responsible for the greatest number of human deaths is the oceanic whitetip, a largely solo scavenger most encountered in warm, open oceans, often after a boating accident or while diving.

What's the weather up to? Incoming storms can stir up baitfish, attracting sharks.

Avoid surfing or swimming at these times, and take a 24-hour break from the ocean after a storm has passed to allow the waters to return to normal.

How does the water look? Know what the sea should look like in a particular area.

If typically clear waters are suddenly murky or cloudy one day, vigorous marine activity could be blamed, so stay clear.

Don't hang out at river mouths or harbor inlets, as these are popular spots for marine predators to breed and seek meals.

The same goes for sudden, steep offshore drop-offs.

What time is it? Dawn and dusk are less safe than midday, and sharks are most active at night.

What's going on nearby?

Nearby fishing activity, storm drains, seal populations, and even migrating whales offshore can all attract the attention of the ocean's predators.

Be smart and find another place to surf or swim.

Pay attention to the behavior of other marine creatures. If you notice a school of fish, diving birds, or any other flurry of activity, leave the water or paddle to another spot.

What are you doing? Erratic swimming, such as with dogs, can look and sound like injured seals.

Shiny jewelry and high-contrast, bright colors can cause a shark to confuse you with a delicious fish. Bleeding in the water - including girls and women on their periods - can smell like food.

Solo swimming and staying horizontal in the water can make you look like a lost member of a seal herd; easy pickings for a peckish hunter.

All of these behaviors should be avoided, especially in areas where sharks are known to hang out.

Great White Shark: loves temperate waters | Photo: Elias Levy/Creative Commons

If something brushes or bumps you underwater

Leave the water straight away to investigate.

Minor bites in water are often not felt when they occur, and bleeding into the water can entice a shark back for more.

If you spot a shark

Stay cool, but shout loudly to warn others in the area. Don't antagonize or try to scare the shark away. Leave the water as quickly and unexcitedly as possible.

If you can't leave the water

Be very still and stay quiet. Keep your eyes on the shark as it swims. Sharks often retreat from the prey, then circle back to gain speed and strike.

Get out of the water as soon as it's safe to do so.

If you are diving and are approached by a shark

As mentioned above, stay very still. If you are holding any fish or catches, release them, then swim to safety when possible.

If you are circled or bumped

Circling and bumping means the shark is either curious or intent on attacking.

In either case, you should assume you are in imminent danger and be prepared to defend yourself.

Use anything you are carrying as a weapon, as a last resort, utilizing hands and feet. Strike at the sensitive gills and eyes with repeated, short, sharp jabs.

Be relentless. Hit as hard as you possibly can until the shark gives up and leaves.

If the shark swims toward you in a zig-zag motion

Back up against something - or someone - solid. Defend yourself as above. Don't give up until the shark does.

If the shark grabs you with its mouth

Be as hostile and vicious as possible. Latch onto the muzzle of the shark with any free limbs to avoid being thrashed.

Then claw, kick, elbow, and generally endeavor to injure the eyes and gills. Do not play dead. The shark will simply attempt to swallow its catch.

Once free

Get to shore as calmly and quickly as possible, instructing anyone nearby to ring for an ambulance.

If you have a bite and can apply pressure to the wound, do so right away while leaving the water to minimize blood loss.

If you see someone who has been bitten

  1. Help the victim to shore and keep them warm by wrapping them in the nearest available towel or cloth;
  2. Apply pressure directly to wounds with any available cloth or fabric. If blood soaks through, do not remove the original cloth; simply add more as needed. Apply force also to pressure points directly between the injury and the heart. Common pressure points include the groin area, above the elbow, and behind the knee;
  3. If pressure points do not slow the bleeding and medical help is not immediately available, a tourniquet may be the solution. Wrap the wound in a stretchy fabric as tightly as possible, and insert a stick or rigid pole between the bandage and the skin. Twist to tighten until blood flow slows considerably or stops. Use this measure only under extreme circumstances where no other choice is available;
  4. Elevate the bleeding limb to a position above the heart; if possible, at least 12 inches;
  5. Keep the victim still. If a limb appears disfigured or broken bones are suspected, leave the limb in place. If possible, use a pad with soft material, applying ice to the outside of the pad;
  6. If shock is suspected, treat appropriately: call 911 or your local emergency number, lay the person down, begin CPR if necessary, and don't let them eat or drink anything;

While shark encounters are undoubtedly on the rise, attacks resulting in death or injury are still exceedingly rare; the chance of it happening to you is one in 11.5 million.

Understanding the relationship between humans and sharks is key to shutting down any irrational fears you might have about your time in the ocean.

It will also arm you with the tools you need to ensure survival if the unlikely does occur - to you or someone else.

Take a look at our shark attack map. Enjoy the surf.

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