Sharks have a special place in most people’s minds as one of the most frightening animals in the ocean. Ever since “Jaws” hit cinemas back in 1975 (half a century ago), they have captured people’s imaginations as the greatest terror of the seas. Even deadly creatures such as the Blue Ringed Octopus, Box Jellyfish, and Yellow-bellied Sea Snake, or massive deep-sea monsters like the Colossal Squid don’t command quite the same fear as the shark.
But realistically, how dangerous are sharks? Are they really the man-eating monsters that the movies make them out to be? Do all sharks eat humans, and what are the chances of getting bitten? How likely are you to survive a shark attack, and what first aid training is best to help someone who’s been attacked?
What Sharks Eat Humans?
Let’s start off with some good news – not all sharks eat humans. Out of 489 shark species worldwide, there are only three species which are known to have killed humans in the last 20 years – the Bull Shark, the Tiger Shark, and the famous (and massive) Great White Shark. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of debate among scientists about whether sharks like the Great White even like the taste of humans.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean no other species will ever bite humans. It’s just that other species of shark very rarely inflict fatal bites.
What Are The Chances Of A Shark Attack?
In the last few years, sharks have attacked around 20 people a year. In 2020, there were 8 deaths due to a shark attack, 7 of which were unprovoked. That’s about 40% of the worldwide figure – so yes, Australia has seen more than its fair share of shark bites in recent years. In fact, Australia currently sees more fatal bites than any other country – 259 in the last 60 years (almost 60% of the global total).
On the flip side, Australians are estimated to have made 500 million individual visits to the beach in 2020-2021. Australians spend a lot of time by the sea, and most of us live within an hour of the coastline. We’re a beach-going nation, so it’s not hard to see why we might get more than our share of shark attacks.
The odds of getting attacked by a shark obviously go up and down based on your situation. People paddling in the shallows are far less likely to be bitten than surfers and divers. For reference, off the coast of Western Australia – currently the deadliest place on earth for shark attacks – divers are estimated to have odds of around 1-in-16,000 of suffering a fatal shark bite. That’s about the same odds as a cyclist has of being killed in a bike accident. But if you’re swimming in water less than 5m deep (and within 25m of the shore), you’re around fifty times less likely to be bitten – close to one in a million, and less likely than getting struck by lightning.
So while shark attacks do happen, your odds of personally being bitten by a shark – especially if you’re staying close to the beach – are very low.
How To Avoid A Shark Attack?
So, the obvious way is to stay out of the water altogether – it’s the most reliable way to guarantee avoiding a shark bite. Other than that, if you’re in the shallows near the beach, then your chances of being attacked are small. Well established swimming areas are particularly safe, as these are often protected by shark nets or watched by helicopters, drones, and lifeguards from the beach. Conversely, the further out you go, the more likely you are to find yourself sharing the waters with a shark.
A common belief among many scientists is that sharks don’t actively seek out humans as prey but more often mistake them for other things, such as seals. A human in a wetsuit can look a lot like a big seal from below – particularly when on a surfboard. Avoid swimming in areas where sharks might be looking for other food – or just like hanging out. This includes:
- Around steep underwater drop-offs & deep channels
- Deeper water between sandbars
- Near a sewerage outlet (Baitfish like sewage, sharks like baitfish)
- Anywhere fishermen might be “Chumming the Water” (throwing bait in)
- Near any dead creature in the water
- Around river mouths
- Near seals or sea-lions
There are also several precautions you can also take to protect yourself from sharks while in the water. Don’t swim alone (we’ll discuss why that’s important next). Don’t wear shiny jewellery, as it can shimmer like fish scales in the water. Try to wear brighter colours so that the shark can distinguish you from its regular food. And of course, if you get cut and find yourself bleeding in the water, get out quickly – both to treat the wound and also to avoid attracting sharks, which are really good at smelling blood in the water.
If you’re serious about protecting yourself from sharks, you might even consider a shark repellent device. These devices create an electromagnetic field (over about 4-5 meters) that makes sharks uncomfortable. Sharks have special senses in their snout that can sense nearby prey – called the Ampullae of Lorenzini (that’s pronounced “Am-pull-ee of Lauren-zee-nee”). Shark repellent devices mess with those senses, making the sharks less likely to get near you. They’re not 100% effective (more like 60% at best), but they work well enough that the WA government is willing to subsidise people buying them.
Australia’s most dangerous shark regions tend to be on the northeast and northwest coastlines – Western Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland. The most dangerous time of year for shark attacks is generally the hot months – November to April. So it’s worth being particularly cautious in these regions at that time of year. But it’s also true that those regions and months probably see the most surfers, divers and snorkelers poking around in shark territory. So the relatively high number of attacks is hardly surprising.
How To Survive A Shark Attack?
The first key factor to surviving a shark attack is one that you need to think about before you get bitten. And because sharks don’t tend to let you know when they’re going to attack, that means it just needs to be a rule whenever you swim in the ocean. The rule is – don’t swim alone!
Swimming with a buddy is a good safety measure at any time. But before you ask “how is having a friend around going to help me fight off a shark?” we should clarify – they’re not there to stop you from getting bitten. They’re there to rescue you if you do.
The most common type of shark attack on humans is what’s called a hit-and-run attack – the shark bites you and then backs right off to safety. This often happens out in the surf zone or in murky water, and the victim often doesn’t get a look at the shark that bit them. Many scientists believe most sharks don’t like the taste of humans – they went up for what looked like a nice bite of sea-lion and got a mouthful of human with a side order of surfboard (which they then spit out). Other scientists claim they possibly do like the taste of human, but hit-and-run attacks are a common shark tactic – retreating to safety to let their prey bleed out before they come in for the kill. They just don’t count on the prey being able to retreat to land to escape.
Either way, it’s good news for us because it means the shark backs off after one bite. That means your buddy can help you out of the water and then call for help. So having a buddy with you is critical.
If you’re in the water and you feel something large bump into you in the water, it’s best to head for shore rather than sticking around to investigate. Sharks sometimes bump prey before attacking to try to figure out what it is.
If a shark seems to be coming straight at you, the time for escaping is over – you can’t outswim a shark. Stand your ground – a human trying to swim away looks a lot like a fleeing seal, whereas a vertical human treading water doesn’t. Grab any weapon available – such as a paddle or diving knife – and go for the eyes or gills if possible. If you have no weapon, gouging the eyes or gills with your hands, or even punching the shark in the nose can be effective – a shark’s nose is actually quite sensitive. Sharks aren’t looking for a fight, and realising that their meal knows how to fight back makes it a lot less appealing. This can help even if the shark has bitten down on you – possibly persuading it to let go and back off.
If you have been bitten, apply pressure to the wound as soon as possible – you bleed fast in the water, which can be dangerous. Also, the blood will attract more sharks. Getting to shore is also essential. If you have a friend close by, they can help pull you to safety. If you’re alone, try to remain calm (the shark doesn’t expect you to escape, so it’ll likely let you bleed for a while before coming back). Swim on your back to the shore, trying to maintain pressure on the bite.
Once you’re on the shore, seeking help, warning others, and slowing down blood flow are the priorities.
Shark Attack First Aid
If you’re caring for a shark bite victim, you should call 000 (or send someone for help) as soon as possible. Paramedics will take a while to arrive, and every moment could count. Medically speaking, your first priority is to control blood flow. If blood is spurting or flowing freely, this will need to be contained – this is one of the only things that takes higher priority than ensuring a person is breathing. Apply pressure to the wound, potentially using a shirt or other clothing to staunch the blood (be wary of towels, as they can soak blood out of the wound like a sponge). If this doesn’t stop the blood, a tourniquet might be needed – this means tying a rope or cord (such as a belt or surfboard rope) tightly around an injured limb to cut-off blood flow.
It’s also important to keep the victim as still and warm as possible, to slow blood flow and minimise the risk of shock.
If you have the opportunity, seeking out someone with first aid training to assist can potentially be life-saving, as they’ll have critical skills such as applying CPR, dressing wounds, and managing shock. And if you’re spending a lot of time down at the beach during summer, you should seriously consider getting first aid training yourself – there’s a lot of accidents and injuries that can happen in the surf!
If you’re on your own when bitten by a shark, it’s vital that you call 000 as soon as possible. And if you begin to feel dizzy or faint, lie on your side (also known as the “Recovery position”) to make sure your airway remains clear if you pass out.
All this might make us feel like sharks are a menace to be managed. But it’s important to remember – almost all attacks happen because we’re wandering into their hunting grounds – humans don’t actually belong in the ocean! Even then, sharks kill only a handful of humans in any given year – whereas humans worldwide are believed to kill around 100 million sharks every year, or around 11,000 sharks an hour. In fact, it’s estimated that in the last fifty years, humans have probably killed around 70% of the world’s shark population. In short, humans are a million times more dangerous to sharks than they are to us.
Sharks play a vital role in ocean ecology – keeping fish populations in check and balanced. Sharks also include some of the most fascinating species on earth, including the largest fish known to man, and the oldest vertebrate species on the planet (some of which may be over four hundred years old). They’re absolutely worth preserving and protecting. We just need to keep our distance and treat them with healthy respect when we’re visiting their habitat.