In the ocean, 'sharks are around you and you just don't know it,' expert says. Here's how to be aware at the beach.

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Are shark attacks a major risk on a beach vacation? Experts say encountering a shark in the wild is rare. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Are shark attacks a major risk on a beach vacation? Experts say encountering a shark in the wild is rare. (Photo: Getty Creative)

When my family moved from the suburbs of Maryland to a tiny Florida beach town six years ago, shark sightings were the last thing on my mind. Instead, my daydreams consisted of how great it would be to walk to the beach from my house, a life very different than the once-a-year weekly beach vacations I took growing up.

My kids, who were 6 and 8 at the time, had other ideas. In those first few years of living at the beach, they'd sit on the sand, staring at the ocean and feeling more than a little afraid of what lurked in the water that was now, quite literally, their backyard. There were conversations about how rare shark encounters were. We did a marine biology homeschool unit, where we focused on the good things sharks do for the environment. Summer camps where they learned to surf and practice ocean safety became the norm.

And somewhere along the way, my shark-obsessed babies turned into tweens and teens who run into the ocean fearlessly. In the last six years, we've even seen the occasional fin pass by in the ocean and played in shallow waters where we've had to take pause while a herd of nurse sharks passed by (unnerving, yes, but we made it).

Still, when the headlines rage about an increase in East Coast shark sightings and great whites washed up on New York shores, I wonder: Are we, who spend exponentially more time in the ocean than the average beach vacationer, at a higher risk for a Jaws-esque encounter?

Jim Kinsler, the aquarium manager at SeaWorld Orlando says it's unlikely. Kinsler dives with the hundreds of sharks who call SeaWorld home daily, and says for sharks, it's all about curiosity.

"We dive with our sharks every day and even though those sharks may be used to our presence, they still are very curious," he tells Yahoo Life. "Whitetip reef sharks are a great example: When we get in the water with those species, they come right over to us and investigate us even though they've seen us hundreds of times."

How common are shark attacks?

"It's super-rare," says Kinsler of shark-related accidents. "The reality — the classic comparison — is you're more likely to get struck by lightning than bit by a shark."

"When we go out in the ocean or on the surf, we're in the shark's habitat," he adds. "That's where they live. We're enjoying their home and inevitably, it's possible for us to come into contact with each other."

Because they don't have fingers and hands like humans, Kinsler says sharks use what they've got to investigate their environment — namely their mouths and their teeth.

"Their primary option to test an object is to take a bite of it," he says."Very often it's a case of mistaken identity or they're just testing something because they're not sure what it is or it has an odor or a vibration they're curious about."

While the odds of getting nipped by a shark on your beach vacation is rare, it's even more rare that a shark's bite will cause major damage, says Kinsler. "If a small shark — let's say a three-foot Atlantic blacktip were to nip you on the heel, it might break the skin and cause you to bleed, but that's all that happens," he explains. "The shark takes off because clearly, that's not what the shark was interested in. If you look at maybe something like a six-foot bull shark, just by the sheer size, it's going to do a lot more damage."

Kinsler's verdict: It's extremely rare to encounter a shark in the wild and even more rare to be bitten. And, even if you are "investigated" by a shark, there's a good chance the damage will be minimal.

How can you stay safe (and avoid shark encounters) at the beach?

Once you arrive at the beach and set up those chairs and umbrellas, Kinsler says to take a look around.

"You really need to be aware of your surroundings," he says. "Are there fishermen in the area? Are there people casting lines with baited hooks — something that would attract a shark? Sharks are stimulated by injured or ill fish — that's part of how the sharks keep our oceans healthy."

"Are there a lot of schools of fish out splashing around in the surf?" Kinsler continues. "Are there birds that are feeding on those fish? We want to think about our surroundings when we're out in the water: The bottom line is, situational awareness means everything in ensuring you're going to have a safe and enjoyable day."

Kinsler says the reality of any day at the beach is: There are very often sharks around you, and you just don't know it. "People are in and around sharks when they're swimming just off the shore," he says. "They're out there all the time. Just be aware."

What would a world without sharks look like?

If sharks completely disappeared from the world's oceans, Kinsler says the marine ecosystem would collapse. But a world without sharks isn't an impossible reality: Over 100 million sharks are currently removed from oceans each year due to overfishing and bycatch. Kinsler says sharks may be an apex predator who have gotten a bad rap on the movie screen, but they "deserve our protection and respect."

"Sometimes people think, 'What happens in the ocean happens in the ocean. It doesn't affect us as land-dwelling creatures,' but that's not true — everything is connected," says Kinsler. "We have to think about it in terms of the food web that's out in the ocean: Ultimately, at the very top of that cycle of life are the sharks and if we removed the sharks, smaller fish species that they prey upon would just balloon in numbers."

"You'd have this massive population explosion and they would consume all the food that's available to them and it would completely crash," he continues. "All of those species would disappear because there wouldn't be anything like the sharks to keep those population numbers in check. Sharks are incredibly important."

How do you help kids overcome a fear of sharks?

Kinsler says it's this type of marine life education that can help kids understand why sharks exist and be less afraid of them. In fact, at SeaWorld Orlando, kids can touch a shark, learn about different species of shark and even dine at a restaurant where sharks swim past throughout their meal. At Orlando's Discovery Cove theme park, families can even swim with sharks as part of a deeper learning experience.

"Sharks are amazing animals," says Kinsler, explaining it's rare that they become threatened or attack out of anger. "There are situations where you can be in a shark's immediate territory, but this probably happens more out in the ocean around areas like wrecks where a shark may frequent that area."

"Sharks inhabit pretty much every ocean, every sea, every marine environment on the globe, so if you're speaking to kids, it's about them paying attention to what's happening in and around the water and also trying to get them to understand how important sharks are to the environment," he adds.

What should you do if you encounter a shark while swimming?

If you're not in the safety of a theme park and you find yourself rubbing up against a shark in the open water, Kinsler says there's one rule: "Don't panic."

"Sharks can be startled, too," he says, "and so if I'm standing in the surf and I see a small bonnethead or a blacktip out on the coast — I'm going to just let them pass. Don't try to reach out and grab them, don't run away, don't splash water. These are all things that could startle the animal just like it could startle you if an animal came and splashed in front of or around you."

"Be patient, be calm, and walk or swim slowly back to shore," he adds. "Remember it's often curiosity, so if you get their attention, they may be curious and investigate. Being calm is the key."

"As long as we respect their space, as long as we respect what they are and what they do and as long as, if we are in the ocean, we remember that that's their territory and we need to be mindful — in those moments we can co-exist safely."

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