How to survive a shark attack

It's unlikely to happen but should you come face to face with a great white demon of the deep, you'll want to be prepared

Great White Shark Cage Breach Accident

The massive popularity of “revenge of nature” blockbusters like Jaws (1975) has reinforced our primal fears of being attacked by sharks while out swimming in open seas.

Statistically, however, there is only a one in 11.5 million chance of this actually happening.

You’re more likely to get hit by lightning, win an Oscar or be crushed to death by a falling meteor than you are to face off against an all-consuming killing machine from beneath the waves, even in holiday destinations where they are prevalent like the Florida Keys or the beaches of South Africa and Australia.

Presumably fiction fans in the 19th century had a similarly irrational horror of whales after the publication of Moby-Dick (1851).

Sharks are actually not nearly as threatening to humans as the likes of Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Shallows (2016) or The Meg (2018) might suggest.

But those that are inclined to attack a lone swimmer or surfer - great whites, tiger sharks and bull sharks - can be extremely dangerous and, should the unlikely happen, you’d be lucky to escape without injury.

Here’s how to survive an attack.

Precautionary measures

Staying out of a shark’s way is obviously a very good idea indeed, with experts suggesting staying clear of river mouths where they tend to lurk in search of prey.

You should also avoid swimming early in the morning or late at night – when they prefer to feed – or entirely on your own. A shark is much less likely to pursue a group of bathers, preferring to pick off a lone straggler.

Sharks also famously have a powerful sense of smell so avoid sea bathing if you have a pre-existing wound that is likely to bleed, do not urinate in the water and give both large and small fishing boats a wide berth. Trawlers commonly toss buckets of chum into the ocean to attract fish, therein drawing the less-welcome attention of sharks at the same time.

It’s also a good idea to avoid wearing flashy jewellery while bobbing in the sea – sharks might spot the light reflecting off your bling and mistake the glimmer for the scales of fleeing fish.

The encounter

If you do come face to face with a shark, the first thing to do is stay calm. They're just wondering whether you count as food. No big deal.

Do not panic, splash about or try to out-swim it (unless you're really close to the shore). Your fear will only encourage its conviction that you are indeed prey, and you don’t have a prayer against it in a straight race.

However terrifying it may be, it's imperative that you maintain eye contact with the beast at all times. Never turn your back on it or allow it to circle behind you.

If you think the shark simply intends to pass you, make yourself small and stay still.

If it’s clearly coming for you, you need to make yourself as big as possible and intimidate it. Stretch out your arms and legs and give it a reason to think twice about the size of the task it’s proposing to undertake.

Ideally, you want to be edging gently back towards the beach with no sudden or wild gestures and the shark in front of you at all times. It’s all about covering your angles and not allowing the animal to get a clear shot at you.

If it does lunge, you will need to attack it. Punching it in the gills or eyes is recommended and using a weapon if you have one, even a rock from the ocean floor, is a good move to help drive it away.

While hammering the creature on its snout appears to be the conventional wisdom, the suggestion is deeply flawed. With both the shark and your fist moving at pace, there’s every chance you could miss and inadvertently place your arm inside its mouth, which will be the last you ever see of that limb.

The aftermath

Should you make it back to shore, you should immediately seek medical attention.

Even if you’ve not sustained physical injury from the encounter, you might well be suffering from post-traumatic stress or shock.

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