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Best to Be Aware, Rather than Beware, of Sharks

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As the summer season kicks into full gear, beachgoers across the country are packing their sunscreen and heading to the coast. And though millions of people each year enjoy the ocean without consequence, a couple of unfortunate shark attacks have made the news recently.

Experts are analyzing temperature, current patterns and other ocean conditions to determine what, if any, unique combination of factors could have spurred this above average number of bites. Most likely though, it is merely a consequence of more people being in the water. As populations along the coast grow and more people spend time in the ocean, the probability of interactions between sharks and people increases.

However, it is important to keep these events in perspective. The actual likelihood of being bit by a shark is extremely low. There are a number of probability comparisons to pull from, but one of my favorites is that your likelihood of being bitten by another person in New York City is about 100 times greater than finding yourself on the wrong end of a shark.

There are over 400 species of sharks—ranging in size from the world’s largest fish to a shark that can fit in your hand—that show an amazing array of diversity. Aside from the more well-known species like white sharks and hammerheads, there are also the slow moving filter-feeders known as basking sharks, spinner sharks that are known to leap out of the water, and even the oddly enchanting goblin shark. Some are even downright adorable.

Nearly all of them are at real danger at the hands of humans. Each year, millions of sharks are killed in fisheries, either as targeted species or accidental bycatch. Further, there is still a tragic demand for shark fins in some countries. Finning is a brutal practice that often involves removing the fins from the shark while it is still alive, and then returning the mortally injured animal back into the ocean to drown or bleed to death. Though we are seeing growing support for eliminating the practice of finning, there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, a quarter of sharks and rays (close relatives of sharks) are threatened with extinction.

Sharks predate dinosaurs and have been swimming the seas for nearly 450 million years. Yet, now they are facing some of the greatest challenges to their survival. Being well-informed on what fish products you purchase, supporting campaigns to ban shark finning in your state, and helping educate people about the wonder of sharks are great ways to start getting involved in shark conservation.

But in case you still have some hesitation about entering the water, we’ve collected some simple pointers below that can help ensure you have a safe and fun summer:

1)     Stay in good company: Avoid swimming alone and try to stay near a lifeguard stand, if possible. Sharks tend to target solitary prey and in case you get into trouble, it’s always good to have someone nearby who can help.

2)     Avoid hot spots: Stay clear of piers, stormwater and effluent outflows, sandbar ledges and other sharp drop-offs, and places where people are actively fishing. Avoiding these areas that generally attract bait fish and subsequently sharks will help keep you clear of possible negative interactions.

3)     Play it cool: Sharks have evolved to be fine-tuned hunters who are very sensitive to visual, olfactory, and other sensory cues. For a shark, erratic movements, changing color patterns and blood point to what it interprets as injured—and thus easy—prey. Avoid frantic splashing (by you or your pet) and shiny or reflective jewelry and clothing. Do not enter the water if you are bleeding.

4)     Remain aware of your surroundings: Maintain a safe distance to shore and swim during daylight hours, avoiding sunrise and sunset. Stay alert for shark sightings and other safety warnings.

5)     Be respectful: Of course, if you spot a shark do not harass it. It is important to remember that sharks are powerful animals that deserve our respect. Understand that you are the one evading their territory. So please take care of our ocean and sharks, and have a great beach season!

For more information on sharks, please join us for our science series this week as part of our “Shark Week” coverage.

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