Surfing with sharks: everything you need to know

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A guide for surfers

Omphalophobia, the fear of belly buttons. Now this story has nothing to do with innies or outies but does relate back to the heebie-jeebies, a feeling familiar to most. The offshore is pumping, the sets are still cooking and the light begins to fade into a tangerine haze. Along with this epic aesthetic, ­­­feelings of pure stoke can be seen on the salty mug of everyone lucky enough to be sharing waves with you. However, deep down, right in the back of many a surfers consciousness, the thought of what lurks below tends to turn the smallest dark patch in the water into a serious question mark. As surfers, we tend to have a more holistic view of this alien world than most, and have a healthy respect for these, for the most part, misunderstood creatures of the deep. Some fear them while others love them but what we all do is respect them. Sharks, a conversation starter no matter which route you take. Let’s discuss.

Shark vision

When it comes to ‘attacks’ perhaps the most common theory is that of “mistaken identity”, wherein sharks, typically white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), mistake us for their favourite prey – seals (Pinnipeds). For a white to successfully grab onto these agile ballerinas of the ocean, they would need to measure in at around four metres. Logic dictates that these sharks would be highly-skilled and experienced hunters who could pick out the stinky silhouette of a seal over that of a neoprene-clad human using their exceptionally keen senses. The retina of a great white’s eye serves two purposes – one adapted for day vision, the other for low-light and night, thus indicating that this torpedo with teeth is not challenged visually.

Some biologists go so far as to say that their vision underwater is as good as ours above it. Along with their keen eyesight, the great white’s sense of smell is almost unmatched with them possessing the largest olfactory bulb of all sharks. This organ, used for smell, is so powerful in fact that it would be able to detect a single drop of blood amongst 10 billion drops of water… now that’s a helluva lot of drops.

It would therefore stand to reason that through these two senses alone, a white shark and many other species would easily be able to distinguish between a surfer and a seal.

According to Meaghen McCord, head of the South African Sharks Conservancy, in certain conditions, the case of mistaken identity may be put forward. For many of us, nothing puts a lump in the throat more than rocking up to a break where we expect to see clean turquoise heaven, but instead are greeted by a coffee-coloured mess. In such turbid and murky conditions, a shark’s eyesight would be subject to limitations, just like a foggy winter dawnie session where seeing your mate next to you is a challenge. This visual impairment may hold relevance where mistaken identity is concerned.

So with mistaken identity for the most part being ruled out, and is highly debated amongst the scientific community, where does the answer lie? A paper published in the Journal of Marine Biology by Dr. Erich Ritter and Alexandra Quester suggests that perhaps the answer lies in a rather human-like trait; curiosity. Their research covered over 70 encounters between man and these one-ton fish between 1966-2015, focussing on the shark’s length and inflicted damage on surfer and board. It was found that if a case of mistaken identity was the cause, then the minimal size of great white’s mouthing off at us surfers would be the same as that of ones snacking on seals. Along with this, one would expect to see similar impact wounds on both humans and seals, however, on both accounts, this is not the case.

Shark motives

With reference to these two shark biologists along with countless more from across the seven seas, the main motive behind these unfortunate encounters is due to the exploratory nature of the shark. To put it differently, imagine we had no arms or legs and we identified a possible food source lying on the floor beside us. It would make sense that the only way we could fully determine whether or not that food source was edible would be to bust out our pearly whites and take a bite. The purpose of this exact function, when it comes to great white sharks, is a means to find out through tactile information what the object is, be it a dead fish or a boat motor.

White sharks have particularly slow digestive systems and if they were to add our boney selves to their menu, they would perform at a less than optimal state, and on this highly competitive blue planet, that matters. This is why after an attack on a human, white sharks hardly ever go back for seconds, as they are rather selective of what they consume.

When a white manages to prey on a seal the initial bite is brutal in order to incapacitate its prey whilst it turns away to avoid injuring itself. Once the seal has succumbed to its fatal wound, the shark returns to claim its prize as it recognises the familiar fatty flavour of its favourite chow. On the other hand, the surfer-chomping sharks offer up rather superficial bites, so much so that they would fail to render a seal immobile, further debunking the case for mistaken identity. Likewise, the majority of the sharks involved in these cases would be too small to successfully seize these fur burgers in the first place. This is all well and good, but what about the cases when a great white has come back for an extra nibble? The most likely answer to this fishy conundrum would still be born out of curiosity in some cases, in others, it may reflect target practice, especially when juvenile whites are concerned.

Seal or no seal, the thrill of making that drop and finding yourself deep in the pocket as pure salty bliss barrels overhead is enough to bring us back time and time again. Every time we take that slow jog into the shallows we acknowledge the risks involved whether it be reef, rips, or teeth, the call to the ocean will always bring us home. As a species, we are truly remarkable. But in spite of all our achievements, we still remain subject to the same biological rules and constraints as every other creature on earth. There is no politics in the ocean, only predator and prey.

Surfing with sharks: what you can do

Despite the odds being low that you will encounter a shark while surfing, diving, or swimming, any marine activity along the world’s 620’000 km of coastline carries the risk of an unplanned encounter with a big toothy fish. Because of this, a few basic principles can be used and if followed will not only decrease your chances of encountering a shark but increase the odds of a safe ending for both shark and human. So with this all in mind what can we do as surfers to get that little extra ‘peace of mind’?

Be present

Well for a start, preferably make use of beaches where trained lifeguards are stationed and on duty. Now, this is easier said than done. I’m constantly, as I’m sure you are too, on the lookout for more remote breaks where crowds are few and barrels are plenty. If that’s the case there are a couple of things you could look out for when on the strike. Factor in environmental conditions such as water clarity. You’re gonna wanna avoid river mouths, estuaries, murky, turbid water as well as low light conditions. Basically, anything that’s gonna limit one of a shark’s most critical senses – vision. Along with that, don’t surf in areas where bait and game fish are running, where seals are present or seabirds are diving. When the ocean’s alive you can bet your sandy ass-crack that a Johnnies about. And as for that old ‘if you see dolphins there ain’t any sharks around’ chestnut… you can put that to bed. 

Avoid the drop

Here I’m talking topography not wave face by all means drop that face! Generally speaking out back just where the sets start to pitch it tends to be a little deeper. Now, this is tricky cause this is what makes the wave do its thing. But in some places, steep drop-offs should be avoided when surfing alone or a way away. Here’s why. Sharks will at times use these fringes to hunt along, making use of the natural ledge, suiting their countershading. If you ever look at a shark’s pigmentation you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Darker on the top and lighter on the bottom. Here the ambush effect is maximised. Lurking bellow they’re watching the surface. 

Be big but not bright

In the shark world, size matters. Fun fact did you know that a shark’s penis is called a clasper, of which they have two! I digress, what I actually mean is that body size relates to dominance. Bad news for the boogies out there if you’re sharing the lineup with a logger. Dominance, the bigger you are the meaner you are sharks know this to be true. Next, you’re clothing. The ’90s ended long ago, ditch the lumo! The time of dressing up like a fishing lure is over. Bright colours along with shiny/reflective items are eye-catching. So try to avoid these when selecting decals, bikinis and baggies.

Turn and burn

If you like me this next one is something you’re already doing. Turning and burning… calories not people. I’m constantly on the move in the lineup a big-time sufferer of Side Wave Syndrome. The barrel always looks bigger on the other side to me. What am I on about? I’m talking about changing your direction. Sharks take note of where you’re not looking so when you’re constantly moving about every which way you are mimicking predatory behaviour. This makes it unclear where your blind spots are. A useful tactic when you consider most species of sharks that could do you damage are ambush predators. So get on that hustle, baby!

Use a deterrent

Consider making use of one of the many shark deterrents on the market today. Such as Shark Banz, Shark Eyes, Shark Shield, Modom Shark Leash, NoShark, Freedom+ Surf you are spoilt for choice. Just make sure you do your research as some technologies are more anecdotal than others.

Stay calm

What if you see a shark body-check the lineup? First thing, stay calm my dude, and make for the exit. Splish splashing and panic is not gonna get you anywhere near the green zone but rather keep you cemented in the red. If you’re surfing in a group, bunch up, there’s safety in numbers. Do what you can to track the shark’s movement all the while heading for the sand. Odds are if you’ve seen the shark the games over anyway and you’re going to be just fine.

Understanding the importance of sharks

As ‘Top Dawgs’ or, more accurately, apex predators, sharks chow down on anything and everything below them in the food web. This act in itself helps maintain and regulate the balance of marine ecosystems. Another thing sharks got going for them and the environment is their varied diets. This switching between meals allows prey species to persist so that the resource is not depleted (if only humans could do the same). In doing this it not only influences population dynamics (through consuming prey) but sharks also control the spatial distribution of multiple marine species. They do this by their presence, causing some species to alter their habitat use as well as their activity level leading to shifts in abundance at lower levels of the food web. This cascading effect influences community structure. 

By stopping one species from taking over a limited resource, sharks and other predatory fish increase the species diversity of the ecosystem. In far fewer words – more predators = more diversity. Sharks and other apex predators such as orca are as necessary to the ocean as your thumb is to your hand. They form a pivotal component to maintaining a complex ecosystem full of diversity and life. Sharks do so much more than occupy that sweet spot in many people’s nightmares. They regulating species abundance, distribution, and diversity, providing scraps for scavengers as well as removing the sick and weak. 

Factoring in all of the above it boils down to common sense and understanding when it comes to all things sharks and safety. Know what to look out for, know what to do in the case of an emergency, and trust your gut. In a nutshell, keep a level head. A shark’s a shark it’s never going to be anything other than that, something you have to respect.