When Sharks Attack

2 February 2010 By Claire Griffiths

“Shark attacks [are] on the rise,” claims the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

As a fact, this (not very neat) little headline grabber is true. But it’s not, as it were, a real truth. Sharks are not suddenly lusting after human entrails – but, since records began, man is spending more time “recreating” in the water and improved data research means cases are more accurately reported so the figures are up.

In fact, says the ISAF, in recent years shark attacks have levelled off (to an average of 63 per year) and over-fishing of elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives, skates and rays) mean populations are critically low, especially near-shore sharks, which are more easily captured and are highly desirable in the Orient.

In 2008, there were 59 reports of unprovoked shark attacks recorded worldwide – not a lot, but enough, let’s say. Most attacks took place in North American waters, but there were 12 reported in Australia, three in Mexico, two in Brazil and one in the Seychelles. Four of the attacks were fatal – two in Mexico and one each in Australia and California.

Top tips from the list of “How Not to be Eaten by a Shark This Year” are the same as those applying to “hands in the till,” “trousers down” or “kissing your best friend’s girlfriend” scenarios – and boil down to a simple question of not getting caught or not going “there” (“there” being where “they” are).

1. You get Brownie points for doing research on shark sightings, talking to the locals (sober ones) and checking with tourist information services.
2. Experts advise against swimming at harbour or estuary entrances, in murky waters or among underwater cliffs.
3. It’s not a good idea to wade into the water if you’re bleeding or menstruating.
4. Wearing bright colours doesn’t help (apparently) nor does wearing jewellery, which can be mistaken for glittering gills.
5. Don’t swim at dusk, dawn or at night.
6. Avoid swimming among schools of fish or colonies of seals.
7. If you notice sea life suddenly acting erratically, it could mean a predator lurks.
8. Don’t swim alone.

Not many people actually plan to get within kissing distance of the Great Whites, Tigers and Bulls of this world and there’s still time to keep your name off the ISAF 2010 Shark Attack List if a dorsal fin flicks onto the horizon.

Here's what to do If you do indeed encounter one of the more dangerous creatures of the deep:
• Shout for help and swim ashore in the style of an Olympic gold medalist (but just a little bit faster)
• If you’re far from shore with no one in sight, panic very quietly in a “I’m not really here” sort of way – and the shark might choose not to notice you
• When none of the above seem remotely helpful and a shark is circling you or zigzagging to check out the best line of attack, you need to start fighting – aiming if you can for the eyes, gills and nose – and don’t stop fighting until he decides you’re not worth the effort
• Even when he’s headed off, make for shore as fast as you can, because your injuries will attract other predators.

Now store all of this in the safety box marked “In the very, very unlikely event that...” at the back of your mind and go enjoy the water.