How NOT to surf with sharks

What do you do if you find yourself in the surf with sharks?

The Reality of finding yourself in the surf with Sharks is a is unlikely. Often surfers and scuba divers find themselves in the surf with sharks. However, very rarely do they attack or bite.

Sharks are an essential part of the wild. In fact, you're more likely to die in car crash on your way to the beach than be attacked by a shark.

Sharks are one of evolution’s single greatest feat. Outliving dinosaurs and surviving a few mass extinctions – the fear of being in the surf with sharks is on most people's list.

Even today with all the new research we have about sharks, there is still an innate fear of sharks wired into us humans.

The fear of being in the surf with sharks

Where does the fear of sharks stem from?

Okay, yeah… probably from their hundreds of teeth. Also, probably from certain movies and of course… Shark Week on the Discovery channel.

Unfortunately, the media has created a horrible reputation about sharks. Sensationalizing the rare occurrences of a shark attacks. When in fact being attacked while in the surf with sharks is highly unlikely.

The probability of finding yourself in the surf with sharks

Let's look at some recent statistics about shark attacks.

Worldwide, about 65 people are attacked by sharks every year. However, in 2000, there were a record 79 attacks worldwide. 16 of those attacks were fatal.

In 2002, there was only one reported death. Along the west coast of North America (one of the homes to the great white shark), there were 41 shark attacks on surfers during the entire twentieth century.

Shark attacks are rare and fatal attacks are even less frequent. In fact, more people die annually from falling coconuts (150) and being struck by lightning (47) than from being attacked by a shark. Of course, if you’re constantly swimming in shark infested waters and rarely near a coconut tree, those statistics aren’t very telling.

The United States records the largest number of attacks each year, followed by Australia and South Africa. There are the most fatal attacks in Africa.

Accoding to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) they say most attacks in the U.S. have been in Florida, Hawaii, California, South Carolina and North Carolina.

In 2009, the ISAF recorded a total of 2,251 attacks worldwide since 1580, 464 of which were fatal.

Why do sharks attack humans?

More specifically, do shark attack humans on purpose?

Are surfers a more likely delicacy for our ocean friends the sharks?

Unbeknownst to most, shark research is still in early stages. Yes, scientists seek to understand shark behavior, one thing to note is that that shark feeding is not why sharks attack humans. They're not doing it out of hunger. In fact, most shark bites are exploratory in nature. Not due to the shark being hungry.

Most shark experts will tell you the reason sharks attack humans (especially surfers) is because they mistakenly identified the human as a seal.

Types of shark attacks

There are three main types of unprovoked shark attacks: the hit-and-run attacks, the bump-and-bit attacks, and the sneak attacks. In other words, sharks have three different attack strategies.

In the hit-and-run attacks, the shark inflicts a small laceration on the victim, swims away, and never returns. It's the most common shark attack, the less dangerous, and usually involves surfers and swimmers.

The bump-and-bite attack usually occurs in deep waters. The shark circles and bumps the victim before inflicting potentially deadly wounds.

In sneak attacks, sharks appear without warning and bite their victims to death.

Will all kinds of sharks attack you?

Unfortunately, most people think ALL sharks are dangerous. When really, there are just a few species of sharks who are more prone to biting humans in an exploratory way. Specifically, there are just 4 out of the 360 shark species shark species that have been involved in shark attacks:

  1. The Great White Shark
  2. Tiger Shark
  3. Bull Shark
  4. Oceanic Whitetip Shark

Surprisingly, the species of shark responsible for the most attacks are the Oceanic Whitetip Shark. Which is a species prone to being aggressive in general. The Oceanic Whitetip Shark is found mostly in deep, tropical waters. Luckily due to its frequent habitat  being located far offshore, the Oceanic Whitetip Shark shouldn't be a worry to surfers.

The Great White Shark, Tiger Shark, and Bull Shark, all have common characteristics which make them risky to surfers. Often you'll find these species in shallow water close to land. There behaviors are unpredictable and sometimes quite aggressive.

How to eliminate any risk when potentially being in the surf with sharks

Unfortunately there isn't anything you can do to prevent a shark from being aggressive with you. Unless you stay out of the water. Which isn't an option for surfers.

However, there are some shark prevention technologies and gear available to surfers. This includes board decals and electromagnetic emission repellents.

Unfortunately, none of these are proven to have a 100% success rate.

Here are a few tips quick tips for possibly preventing a shark attack, according to ISAF:

  • Don’t swim alone, since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  • Avoid the water at dawn, dusk, or night, when sharks are more likely to feed.
  • Avoid areas with known effluents or sewage and those being used by fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity.
  • Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound.
  • Do not wear shiny jewelry or bright clothing.
  • Avoid areas where sharks are generally located, such as murky water or steep drop-offs.
  • Refrain from excessive splashing and do not allow pets in the water.
  • Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if a shark is seen.

We know sharks almost never bite humans because they are hungry.

We know the most aggressive of shark species behind most attacks are typically far offshore from land.

We also know we are more likely to become injured or die from driving to the beach, drowning – than from a shark attack.

Bottom line, as a surfer, you have to acknowledge the fact that you’re sharing the water with potentially life-threatening species of sharks.

More prevention techniques to keep in mind if you find yourself in the surf with sharks

Avoid Feeding Time
Early morning and dusk are the key times sharks feed. While sharks aren't looking to feed on humans, they are more likely to confuse you with a seal. Resulting in a potentially fatal exploratory bite. And yes, unfortunately the early morning and evening are often the times of the best surf conditions. Depending on the frequency of shark sighting where you surf, opt to surf in the mid-day.

Always be aware of your surroundings
From the time you walk into the water to the time you walk out, never stop studying the environment you're in. Pay attention to other surfers and swimmers around you. Be up to day of any shark sightings. Look at what nature is doing around you. Are birds swarming around an offshore bait ball? You are an animal too, let you instincts and gut feelings dominate. Be aware, at all times.

Avoid deep channels 
Shark activity is common near deep channels that run between the beach and the outer breaks where the surf spots are. When you find yourself paddling across a channel an eerie feeling always takes over. Sharks love the deep water. When sharks are in deeper water, they're more likely to find bigger fish. Also, the deep water offers a better hunting spot because they can look up to see their preys silhouette against the sky.

Don't surf near river mouths
There are three reasons to not surf near river mouths. First, there is more fish and prey for sharks. Second, there is almost never any clear water. You won't be able to see anything even if there is a shark nearby. And third, if you're surfing in an area where there are crocodiles (surfing Costa Rica) then you have the bonus of worrying about a second hungry predator in the surf.

Surf with many other surfers
I know, as a surfer, you probably are trying to avoid crowds. However, if you happen to be surfing in an area that has a higher shark risk, being in a herd is ideal. From the perspective of a shark, a solitary surfer easily can be mistaken for a sick or injured seal. Generally, sharks will usually stay away from a pack of surfers as they pose as a threat. Sharks are opportunistic in nature, which is whey they would take advantage of a solitary surfer.

Avoid wearing shiny jewelry
this tip relates more to smaller species of sharks. Typical of the sharks you'll find closer to shore or near reefs. Jewelry or other objects that may flash and reflect light could be misinterpreted as the smaller bait fish these smaller sharks love to munch on.

Avoid the water if something dead is floating around
If there’s something dead such as a seal, whale, or other large creature, just stay out of the water. Sharks act as the vultures of the sea. The same goes for sewage runoff (which you don't want to be surfing in anyways). Hungry sharks aren't the best ones to be around.

Be silent when you paddle
Adopt a ninja-like stealth when you're surfing. To a shark, frequent splashes alert them to a potential injured seal. Remember sharks are opportunistic. Sharks can easily sense these sorts of waves and vibrations at a level we can't even imagine.

Specific locations where you're most likely to find yourself in the surf with sharks

The following are five surf spots where the chances are high you won’t be surfing alone:

St. Leu, Reunion Island
In the Indian Ocean, Reunion is the shark attack capital of the world. It had it's 23rd fatal shark attack on the island since 2011.

Ballina, New South Wales
What Reunion Island is to Africa, Ballina is to Australia. Great White Sharks have become an increasing threat in Ballina. More specifically at Lighthouse Beach. There have been 11 attacks since 2015, including one fatality. Currently, officials have turned to drones to help spot and warn surfers when bigger sharks enter the lineup.

Perth, Western Australia
South Australia, one of the most shark-infested places on earth. One of the known breeding grounds for Great Whites, recently  there have been five fatal shark attacks. Because of so much shark activity in South Australia, Perth and Western Australia have become a key location for shark research.

Second Beach, Port St. Johns, South Africa
One of the most dangerous beaches in the world, Second Beach in South Africa is a likely place for a shark attack. Seven fatal shark attacks in seven years is enough to keep most people out of the water. The shark species known to frequent here are Bull Sharks.

Surf Beach, Lompoc, California
Surf Beach is known for having more sharks than any other place on the West Coast. While other areas in California have reported more sightings, Santa Barbara’s Surf Beach has the greatest ratio of encounters to fatalities. For example, there have been two fatal attacks occurring there since 2010.

Conclusion about being in the surf with sharks

Never forget that sharks are at the top of the food chain. Though they prefer sea lions, sea turtles, fish, wales, and seals. Sharks follow their instincts. Luckily humans are not on their preferred menu. Most shark attacks are simply a case of mistaken identity.

Sharks have to make quick decisions to capture food and, sometimes, the predator misinterprets humans for its natural food item.

The majority of shark attacks occur near the shore, in the surf zone and sandbars, because their natural preys live in these areas. But attacks also take place in steep underwater drop-offs, where divers often swim.