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As temperatures continue to reach record highs, Americans are travelling to the US coasts for reprieve from the sweltering heat and heading to the beach. But beach-goers are being advised to keep their wits about them: There’s been a recent increase in the number of reported shark attacks and sightings.
At least four people were injured in Long Island, New York, as a result of shark encounters this summer and elsewhere beaches are being closed or closely monitored as fears of additional shark attacks rise.
While experts assure us that this recent string of attacks isn’t necessarily a cause for concern (shark attacks continue to be “rare”), they’ve also provided us with the tools we need to decrease the likelihood of an attack.
Dr Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist, research associate professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy, and director of Shark Research & Conservation Program (SRC), told The Independent that people should avoid swimming in the ocean in places and at times where it would be easy for a shark to mistake you as prey, such as at night, or in murky water, where “it can be hard for a shark to tell the difference between your hand or a fish”.
Though, he emphasizes, it is important to remember “shark bites are rare” because “humans are just not on the menu for sharks”.
Dr Hammerschlag also advises against swimming in areas of the ocean where you know there are a lot of fish, such as where people are fishing, as “sharks are attracted” to these areas due to the ease in which they can find food. “A fish that gets caught on a fishing line and is bleeding and struggling is a dinner bell to the shark,” he explained. “Many sharks seek out places where people fish in the hopes of catching an easy meal.”
Swimmers should also avoid places where a river mouth meets the ocean, as he noted that rivers can pour a lot of nutrients and sand into the ocean, leading to poor visibility. These areas, which are heavy in nutrients and small organisms, also attract bigger animals looking for prey. Dr Hammerschlag said it is also important to remember that there is “safety in numbers” and that, generally, one should not swim in a remote area alone.
To further decrease the risk of attracting a shark, Dr Hammerschlag also recommends taking your jewellery off before catching some waves. The shininess can catch light and be attractive to sharks due to the resemblance to a fish scale.
For his final piece of advice, Dr Hammerschlag said to follow your gut and instinct.
“Many people that were bitten said they had a weird feeling, or that their inner voice told them to get out of the water,” he told us. “It’s very possible that our subconscious is identifying something our conscious isn’t. It isn’t scientific, but listen to your gut.”
In the “unlikely scenario” that a shark does approach you while you are swimming in the ocean, Dr Hammerschlag said there are also a few things that swimmers can do to further decrease the likelihood they will be bitten.
One of the most important things he suggests a swimmer do is to maintain eye contact with the animal. He noted that they are “ambush predators” and find themselves uncomfortable when they are looked at.
“The most important thing to remember is, if you see a shark, maintain eye contact with the shark because they are ambush predators and they don’t appear to like to be looked at,” he explained. “In the natural world, one way to tell your predator they can’t sneak up on you is to maintain eye contact.”
Dr Hammerschlag said this also means manoeuvring your body the same way as the shark. “If the shark swims to the left, you also swim to the left,” he said. “If you are following it with your eyes and your body, it tells the shark you see it and it can’t ambush you.”
As for what you should not do, he stressed the importance of remaining calm and avoiding the instinct to swim away as quickly as possible. Swimmers that are flailing around may accidentally suggest to the shark that they are food.
“Food runs away from predators. You don’t want to act like food,” he said, before adding that, instead, swimmers should walk or swim backwards slowly while maintaining eye contact. “Humans are much bigger than most other things in the ocean, I would follow the shark to let it know you see it and you’re alerted to it and I would back up slowly. Walk or swim backwards in the direction of the exit,” he said.
Dr Hammerschlag also encouraged those who find themselves face-to-face with a shark to avoid trying to “make contact” with the animal, as it can anger the shark rather than deter it.
“Never try to make contact with the shark,” he said. “They usually don’t want to swim up and bite someone. If you swing or punch it, you’re more likely to cause distress and elicit an aggressive response or end up putting your hand in its mouth. Last thing you want to do is whack at it.”
Those who are swimming with an object such as a snorkel or surfboard, Dr Hammerschlag suggests, can place it in between themselves and the shark as a barrier, as he said the shark will be able to tell “there’s a physical barrier”.
“The best thing to do is maintain eye contact, don’t try and hit it, give personal space and just try to back out slowly and calmly, but keep looking in the direction it was,” he summed up. “But obviously yell for help and someone can help you.”
If the above doesn’t work, and the shark continues to approach or tries to bite, Dr Hammerschlag said individuals should fight back by aiming for the snout or very sensitive areas such as the gills or eyes.
While he reiterated that it’s “very unlikely” you will be bitten, if you are, he said to fight back “as hard as you can”. “Bang and punch and kick whatever you can and yell. Do not play dead. They’re likely to let you go,” he said.
As for why a shark would bite a human, Dr Hammerschlag told us that it could be for any number of reasons, including that the animal is hungry or simply curious. In the majority of shark attack cases, he says that the animal bites just once, as “they realise you’re not a natural prey item, or the person screamed and they started kicking, and the shark didn’t anticipate that”.
Of course, there are some cases where a shark will return and bite again. He said, in these rare instances, it is worth remembering that the sharks are predators and that they may view you as potential prey.
If you are bitten by a shark, Dr Hammerschlag said the most important thing to do is call for help. The next step is to “do whatever you can to stop the bleeding”.
The American Lifeguard Association corroborated that advice, with a spokesperson telling us that, if bitten,“attempt to stop or slow the bleeding even before leaving the water by using direct pressure on the wound”.
“Leave the water as quickly and calmly as possible,” the ALA said, adding that victims should “get urgent medical attention, no matter how minor the injury is”.
As for how to assist someone who has been bitten by a shark, the ALA said the first step should be “notifying the beach patrol or lifeguard and calling 911 as soon as possible”.
The victim should then be removed from the water. The ALA notes that “extreme care” should be used when doing so, and that it is important to not “endanger yourself”. They advise that the best method for removing a shark bite victim from the water is by boat or jet sky.
“Remember that a rescuer should always ensure the scene is safe to approach and always try to reach, throw or row to them but do not enter the water unless you are a trained lifeguard and have the proper equipment to assist,” the ALA stated.
The rescuer should then attempt to stop the bleeding “by employing direct pressure,” and if necessary, using a tourniquet. After the victim has been removed from the water, the ALA advises against moving them unless necessary, and “protecting the victim from the cold by wrapping them in a blanket to reduce body heat loss”.
“Stay with the victim, continue to control the bleeding, monitor vital signs, and wait until the Emergency Medical Services take over,” the ALA said.
While there have been a number of shark attack reports this summer, Dr Hammerschlag isn’t surprised. He said it should be expected as a result of the number of people in the ocean.
“Sharks in the ocean is common. They live in the ocean and that’s where you’re going to find them,” he said, adding that, when there are more people in the ocean, it “obviously increases chances of a shark bite because it’s a numbers game”.
The doctor went on to say that the number of shark encounters may increase as a result of climate change.
“Waters that were too cold for those species are now becoming warm enough to make them habitable,” Dr Hammerschlag explained, before sharing that warmer waters increase shark metabolisms, which in turn may increase the need for the animals to feed.
“Warmer water tends to speed up metabolism, so it might increase their need to feed, which might make them curious and come to areas looking for potential food,” he said. He also referenced a study he published on tiger sharks, which found that tiger sharks are migrating further north and spending more time there because waters off the northeast are warming at a much higher rate.
While there is always the possibility of a shark encounter when swimming in the ocean, Dr Hammerschlag reiterated that shark bites are “really rare” and that the fear around them may have more to do with a “primordial fear” of the creatures living in the ocean.
“We have this primordial fear. On land, we have conquered everything, but in the ocean, we have this innate fear of swimming and something coming up and eating you,” he said. “It makes you so much more scared of it and the situation so much more sensationalised.”
As for the likelihood of a shark attack, the ALA said: “You have a greater chance of dying from a lightning bolt than a shark attack,” while Dr Hammerschlag added: “If you never want a shark bite, don’t go in the water. That’s the only way you can guarantee it.”