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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Surfing with Sharks | Are Shark Attack Risks Overstated?

By: Rick Bickerstaff
Lately this meme has been going around, illustrating how you are more likely to be killed by (among other things) a vending machine than a shark. I don't know how accurate their research is, but the fact still stands: the odds are highly in your favor of having a shark-free surf. But still I know many people who are reluctant to even try surfing because they are afraid of shark attacks.

What I usually tell these folks is, "Think of all the people that go surfing in the world, every day. Now how many shark attacks do you hear about?" Few to none. But when you're on the open water, in "their" territory, it's not hard to imagine a big fin popping up in your peripherals, or a giant shadow gliding underneath you:

Video courtesy of Brad Coder.

The first time I saw that video I thought to myself, "I don't ever want to surf there again." When more videos popped up of Great Whites at the same spot, it further solidified my resolve. To be fair, I did avoid that spot...for a while. But when a big swell hit and a friend invited me to surf there, I went. And nothing happened...which only meant I could go back!

Check out this website where you can find some shark reports from the West Coast. If you read a few, you'll see that a lot of times surfers will spot a shark and head in for twenty minutes or so, then paddle back out if they don't see a fin again. "What?!" the normal folks say, "what kind of idiot goes willingly swimming with sharks?!"

To me that just proves the power of surfing to take hold of your life and inject it with something so positive and natural, that you make potentially irrational decisions. There's nothing like the feeling of standing up on your first wave, and then the slow progression of working the face, getting barreled, etc. It sucks you in and, even though it thrashes you over and over, you keep going back.

Bottom line: you can't keep a surfer out of the water.

Surfing with friends: safer, and keeps your mind off unseen predators.
So for all us foolish surfers out there, what are some things we can do to avoid sharks, or stay alive should we encounter Jaws Jr.?
  • Avoid surfing at dawn, dusk or night (I know, these are some of the best times to surf, but even if you do, be wary).
  • Don't surf with shark food (seals, sea lions, fish, etc.). This means avoiding the mouths of rivers that dump into the ocean, as well as sand bars and steep drop offs.
  • Don't wear bright colors or jewelry. They may think you're a fish!
  • If you're bleeding, get out of the water.
If you do see a shark, paddle away calmly (easier to say than do) as splashing can attract them. Tell others around you, as well as a lifeguard if there is one. If it snags you, get aggressive! Try your best to get back to shore where you can find help and stop the bleeding. Most deaths by shark come from a wound rather than getting swallowed whole.

I've only seen a couple sharks in my life (all small), but I still freaked out every time. It's hard not to! But stay calm and remember, the odds are in your favor!

Have a good shark story? Please share!