Pretty much every surfer’s worst fear is to come into contact with a shark. This isn’t surprising, given the fact that interactions between sharks and surfers are fairly common, and there are rare cases where attacks can happen.
Thankfully the number of attacks is actually quite low, and fatalities are also very rare. It’s becoming more and more well known that sharks and their reputation for attacks on humans are largely due to cultural factors such as Hollywood portrayals which prey on human fear, emotion, and uncertainty.
The fact is that most surfers never come into contact with sharks, and those that have been near sharks likely never even realized that a shark was nearby.
If a shark does attack, however, there are things you can do to try and protect yourself and deter the shark from continuing to pursue you.
The most commonly talked about method for stopping a shark attack is to punch a shark in the nose.
This is a very common piece of advice and it actually got some basis in fact. This is because sharks have very unique and highly attuned biology, designed to be able to sense movement using specialized organs in the tips of their nose.
This, coupled with their incredibly powerful sense of smell is what makes them such potent predators over such vast distances.
It is believed that due to the sensitivity of these organs, known as Ampullae of Lorenzini, it’s possible to blunt or prevent a devastating shark attack by hitting the shark in these receptors to overwhelm their senses and force them to retreat or back off.
The problem with this is of course that to punch a shark in the nose you already need to be what many people would consider far too close to the shark for comfort. Punching a shark in the nose is therefore a very last resort course of action, and is by no means a reliable way to prevent yourself from getting hurt during a shark attack.
Whether or not you’re able to effectively hit the shark is questionable, due to a variety of factors including the sea state and visibility, weather conditions, the type of shark that is approaching you, your own physical strength and endurance and how confident a swimmer you are.
There are so many variables, and there is also pure dumb luck. There have been cases where punching a shark has caused it to cease attacking someone, but often the person being attacked has still sustained terrible injuries as a result of the initial attack.
Once a shark has decided you’re worth attacking, there is very little anyone can do apart from attempting to get back to shore and try not to panic.
This leads us to our next point. The best way to prevent a shark attack aside from trying to physically fight it.
The same organs that we mentioned previously, use movement in the water to detect potential prey. These organs are so fine-tuned that sharks eyesight is actually very poor, therefore any sort of movement that mimics a seal or other prey creature will draw a shark and make them very interested in taking a nibble of you.
One of the best ways to avoid a shark attack is also one of the hardest things to do in this scenario, and that is staying calm.
The urge to flail in panic and try to swim away as quickly as possible is the equivalent of ringing a dinner bell for a shark. The rapid movements set these organs alight and will make the shark more than simply curious, it almost confirms to them that you are prey.
Trying to swim away from a shark is also a futile gesture unless you’re extremely close to the shore and see the shark from a very far distance. This is because sharks are designed for speed.
They accelerate incredibly quickly in the water and can maintain a speed that would catch an Olympic swimmer with ease, let alone an average surfer lumbered with a wetsuit, surfboard, and whatever else you may be carrying.
The best thing to do if you notice you’re being circled or approached by a shark is to continue watching it and try to always stay facing it.
Sharks that are simply curious will usually circle around at a fair distance, so continuing to monitor it while gently making your way back to shore is one of the best ways to avoid provoking an attack while getting yourself to safety.
It’s thought that striking the shark on the nose becomes less effective if it tries to attack you again, so using alternative methods becomes even more important to giving yourself a chance to escape.
Poking at the shark’s eyes or placing a hand in the gills are considered alternative methods to punching the nose that can make a shark release or cease its attack. You should use whichever methods you can, as they will all have the desired effect and give you a chance to escape and get back to dry land.