How to survive a shark attack: What to do if you encounter the creature, and how likely it is in the first place

There are over 500 species of sharks

Kashmira Gander
Monday 20 July 2015 20:46 BST
Shark Week is back
Shark Week is back

Extraordinary footage showing a professional surfer escaping unharmed from a great white shark attack in South Africa has quickly made headlines across the world.

Mick Fanning, a three-time world champion, punched the creature in a bid to stop the attack during the JBay Open surfing competition in Jeffrey’s Bay, Eastern Cape Province - all as the ordeal was being broadcast live on TV.

But how common are shark attacks, and how can you save yourself if you come face-to-face with Jaws?

How common are shark attacks?

There are over 500 species of shark, but 20 have are known to attack humans. As a rule of thumb, any shark measuring over 1m should be considered potentially dangerous, with the most lethal being the great white, hammerhead, mako and tiger shark.

Annually, billions of people enter shark habitats each year, but only four will be killed in unprovoked attacks on average. In 2014, three people were killed by sharks.

To put this into perspective, some 450 Americans dying from bed-related incidents each year, while balloons claim the lives of 5 people. And when it comes to animals, lions and elephants kill 100 people a year on average, tape worms 2,000, dogs 40,000, and mosquitoes a whopping 725,000.

How can I prepare when entering a shark’s habitat?

Sharks are often found in murky water, entrances to harbours, channels, and steep drop-offs. It is also best to avoid water at dawn, dusk and night when some sharks feed.

The animals have a keen eye for contrast, so bare that in mind when choosing what to wear. They are also attracted by splashing, so it's best to stay as still as possible.

Swimmers should aim to stay in a group. Strength in numbers makes it easier to spot and fight off a shark. Keeping skin as covered as possible can also be helpful, as it will protect you if a shark brush against you – or worse.

A great white shark jumps out of the sea (Image: Getty)

What should I do if I encounter a shark?

Morne Hardenbery, an underwater cameraman who has bravely dived with the creatures without a cage, has warned swimmers that not to turn their backs on great white sharks, as this is regarded as a trigger and mimics the behaviour of their food.

In an interview with The Independent earlier this year, he said that sharks become uncomfortable when interaction is broken off suddenly. “You can’t just bolt,” he said. “You have to react the same way they would: swim after the shark and show a threat. It’s a chess game.”

It's also advisable to stay quiet and still if it has not spotted you, and leave the water quickly and calmly without provoking the shark.

If you’re in a raft and you spot a shark, keep your limbs out of the water and stop any fishing. Don’t throw any equipment or rubbish into the water, as this can be attractive to the creatures.

The shark is about to attack – what do I do?

Simply splashing, slapping the water repeatedly and yelling – both in an out of the water - may scare the shark away, or at least keep it at bay. If you’re in a vessel, hit the shark any objects onboard – but do not use your body. Hitting a shark with an oar should be your last resort, in case it breaks of floats away.

If that doesn’t work and the shark attacks, hit or kick it – aiming for its gills or eyes. Avoid its nose, as they’re close to its teeth.

In the event that a shark takes you in its mouth, be as aggressive as possible and don’t play dead.

Leave the water as quickly as you can if you have been bitten, and try to stop the bleeding.

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