What happens when a shark meets a surfer?

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What will you do if you see a shark while surfing? Every surfer in every corner of the globe has asked them self this question: What happens when a mere human, native to terra firma, comes across this apex predator? How should you respond? How would you respond? You may already have mapped out a plan of action, replaying events as they would come to pass – should they ever come to pass (hopefully not though).

Mention to anyone that you surf and it won’t be long before the conversation pivots to our cartilaginous ocean dwelling friends. The truth of the matter is, the chances of being attacked and killed by one of these apex predators is 1 in 3,748,067 (0,000026%). To put that in laymen’s terms: slim to none. Block buster Hollywood films like ‘Jaws’, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ and ‘The Shallows’ have unwittingly given these predators a terror inducing reputation.

Regardless of the statistics, sharks are scary and can be extremely dangerous if not fatal. Surfers should proceed with caution when seeing one in the ocean.

Here’s the SurfD guide to avoiding these apex predators, identifying what sharks are dangerous to humans and how to respond if you see one in the water.

How to (try to) Avoid Sharks Entirely

Nothing in life is certain. You can follow a plethora of steps and put yourself in the least possible likelihood of seeing a shark in the lineup but still see one. Regardless, if you implement this basic strategy, chances are you’ll steer clear of these beautifully horrifying appex predators.

1. Stay Away from Dead Sea Life

Before paddling out, make yourself familiar with the spot & be certain that no nearby carcasses could be attracting sharks. Sewage runoffs, dead seals, dead sea lions and dead whales will attract sharks in the vicinity. The scent of blood or rotting flesh in the water will get a shark’s appetite going and a hungry, agitated shark, is a dangerous shark. 

2. Avoid River Mouths

Surfing in a river mouth is not recommended for two reasons. Firstly, river mouths are often teeming with sea life. More sea life equals more predatory fish and more predatory fish equals a higher likelihood of sharks. 

Secondly: Have you ever looked at a river mouth from above? If you have, you would notice brown water around the river mouth and clear blue water adjacent to the river mouth. Rivers contain a high percentage of sediment which results in murky water. Many sharks use the strategy of surprise when hunting. Murky water gives sharks a distinct advantage over their prey and without good visibility, sharks are more likely to attack an oblivious human.

3. Don’t Surf at Breakfast or Dinner Time

Wanna avoid becoming a shark’s meal? Avoid dawn and dusk. It is well known that sunrise and sunset are prime feeding times for our cartilaginous friends, and for good reason: lowlight conditions provide sharks with ideal scenario to stalk and attack prey.

4. Avoid Channels

Many surf spots consist of deep channels which lie between the shore and the set waves that you’re hoping to catch from the backline. Sharks love a deep channel for two reasons; a) bigger fish lurk in deep channels making for ideal hunting grounds and b.) there’s safety in deep water. Where possible, opt for waves that don’t involve paddling over a deep channel.

Identify What Sharks are Dangerous

There are over 400 identifiable species of shark roaming the oceans today. Many of which are completely harmless. Understanding that not every species of these cartilaginous fish are minacious is a good starting point. Just because you’ve seen a fin in the water doesn’t require a mass exodus. That being said, if you are unable to or unsure of the species, you should exit the water as a precautionary measure.

Here are some of the most common species of sharks that have been involved in attacks on humans:

1. Bull sharks: Bull sharks also known as the Zambezi shark get their name from their short, blunt snout, as well as their pugnacious disposition and a tendency to head-butt their prey before attacking. Bull Sharks frequent the tropical and sub-tropical waters of all the world’s oceans. They are aggressive and are known to venture far inland via rivers and tributaries. Bull Sharks will eat almost anything from fish, dolphins, other sharks and will inadvertently attack humans.

2. Tiger sharks: Tiger sharks acquired their name courtesy of the long vertical stripes found mainly on juveniles. As Tiger Sharks mature, these lines slowly fade and almost disappear. Much like Bulls, Tigers are found in the ocean’s tropical and sub-tropical waters and are classic scavengers. Tigers have fittingly earned a reputation as man-eaters. They are second only to great whites in attacking people. Because they have a almost completely undiscerning palate, they are unlikely to swim away after biting a human, as Great Whites often do.

3. Great white sharks: The largest predatory fish on planet earth! Great Whites are found in cool coastal waters around the globe and, fully matured, reach an average length of 5 metres. Of the 100-plus annual shark attacks worldwide, a third to a half are attributed to Great White sharks. Most of these, however, are not fatal. Research finds that great whites, which are naturally curious, often “sample bite” and then release their human target.

4. Blacktip sharks: Black Tips frequents bays, estuaries, coral reefs, and the shallow waters off beaches and river mouths. Although they’re not typically known to be aggressive, Black Tips are curious creatures, occasionally resulting in unprovoked attacks. 

5. Sand tiger sharks: With their jagged teeth sticking out of their jaws like a congregation of knives, you’d be correct in mistaking these sharks for ferocious predators. Nurse Sharks, as they are otherwise known, are fairly docile and non-aggressive. Found in warm or temperate waters throughout the world’s oceans (except the eastern Pacific) Sand Tiger sharks tend toward shoreline habitats and would only attack humans out of self defence or when feeling threatened. 

The three shark species to be extremely weary of are the Bull Shark, the Tiger Shark and the Great White Shark. Known as the Big Three, these species are responsible, according to the Florida Museum, for the highest number of unprovoked fatalities. If you see one of these gentlemen in the water, it’s best to exit with immediate effect!

Seeing a Shark: What to do!

Let’s say you’re surfing and you encounter one of these oceanic predators. It just so happens to either be a shark species that is commonly known to attack humans or you are unable to identify the shark type. Here’s a five step guide on how to proceed with caution and get out of harm’s way!

1. Remain Calm

Easier said than done, of course. But the first line of defence is to maintain a level of composure. Sharks would typically investigate potential prey that is frantically splashing around. Try to avoid any sudden movement or loud noises. 

2. Tell Your Mates!

Nobody wants to be that person that saves them self and leaves their mates with a Great White patrolling the backline. If you see a shark, be sure to inform your neighbour calmly. No screaming. Simply let the surfers closest to you know and ask them to tell those around them.

3. Don’t Turn Your Back.

Never turn your back on a shark. Especially not a circling one. Keep your eye on the shark at all times and make sure you’re facing it. Many sharks use the art of surprise when attacking prey. Surprise is their greatest asset. Once you eliminate that advantage, a shark will be less likely to attack.

4. Use Your Surfboard!

If the shark approaches you aggressively, use your surfboard to protect yourself. Strike the shark on the nose, gills, or eyes, as these are sensitive areas that will cause the shark to retreat. 

5. Head Toward the Beach

Once the shark has (hopefully) moved on, make your way to the beach in the calmest manner possible. While doing so, let other surfers know that you’ve just seen a ‘man in a grey suit.’

In conclusion, keep in mind that humans aren’t sharks’ preferred food source. Many incidences involving sharks are cases of mistaken identity or sharks ‘testing the waters’. Humans are just not a common food source for sharks. Sharks are incredible creatures that have been around for thousands of years and play an important role in our ecosystem. We are essentially guests in their natural habitat and should behave as such.