How to survive a shark attack


(CNN) – First things first: despite some truly terrifying stories of survival, it’s very difficult to fight a shark any time soon.

But sharks occasionally attack humans.

Florida teenager Addison Bethea was seriously injured last summer when a shark attacked her in the waters off Keaton Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. And the beach was closed on Nov. 4 after a shark bite at Southern California’s famous Del Mar Beach.

And while these types of encounters make would-be ocean swimmers nervous, there’s no need to panic about the upcoming beach vacation. The chances of being attacked by a shark are very low.

The Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File found 73 confirmed and unprovoked shark bites to people alone and 39 confirmed and provoked bites worldwide in 2021.
Think about it for a minute: the world’s population is close to 8 billion people. Many of them live near the coast or on vacation. And only 112 bites were recorded. Your chances of drowning are much higher.

In 2021, the United States led the way in unprovoked attacks with 47; Florida had the highest state total with 28.

That said, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of survival in an unlikely attack, according to shark experts interviewed by CNN Travel.

Before entering the water

Know your environment

Sharks are saltwater creatures. The ocean is their home; we are visitors

“If you go into the ocean, you have to assume you’re going to encounter a shark no matter when or where it is,” said Neil Hammerschlag, director of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School.

“Fortunately, humans are not on the menu, and also fortunately, sharks tend to avoid people.”

However, there are places where you will encounter a shark.

River mouths are not the best places for swimming

A bull shark comes up to inspect divers during an ecotourism shark dive on May 5, 2022 in Jupiter, Florida.

Joseph Prezioso/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

You should avoid estuaries, said Richard Peirce, author, shark expert and former president of the UK’s Shark Trust and Shark Conservation Society.

Their often murky waters are a favorite of bull sharks, which along with great whites and tiger sharks are the most likely to attack humans.

“A lot of attacks happen in river mouths where there’s silt and other material suspended in the river — people washing clothes, people washing themselves,” Peirce said.

Hammerschlag pointed to another area where an encounter might occur: the deeper channels between the shore and the sandbars further out.

Avoid areas with fishing

Before you jump into the sea, look at the horizon: What do you see? If you see fishing boats, Peirce says “forget it”.

“Whether it’s commercial or recreational fishing, the material will often be discarded, and unwanted dead fish, fish parts and fish gut actions are being put into the water and attract the attention of sharks,” he said.

The great white, bull shark, and tiger shark are called the “Big Three” for a reason.

Before diving in, watch for unusual fish activity, such as a series of small to medium-sized fish jumping out of the water, Hammerschlag said. That’s a sign that a shark might be nearby.

He also advised not to swim within 50 meters of where someone is fishing from shore.

Avoid sunset and sunrise

Swimming early in the morning or at night can be beautiful, but it is also the time when shark attacks can occur.

“Many shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity,” says Peirce, “due to reduced visibility and identification on behalf of the shark.”

Hang with the lifeguards

A lifeguard watches swimmers at Terre Sacrée beach on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica.  Lifeguards may be aware of shark activity on their beach and, more importantly, currents and other drowning threats.

A lifeguard watches swimmers at Terre Sacrée beach on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. Lifeguards may be aware of shark activity on their beach and, more importantly, currents and other drowning threats.

PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, recommends “doing your homework” before venturing into unfamiliar waters. Bone up a bit on the species you can find in different places.

If you have any questions, ask a local lifeguard. He said they are great resources.

“I always recommend that people go to protected beaches. It’s much safer,” he said.

Do not use shiny objects in the water

“Watch out for jewelry, because sharks are always looking for fish with anything that blinks.” said Lowe.

In dark water, a shark may think the flash is a sign of a meal. “And you don’t want to mess with it hand or foot.”

Follow your instincts

“Probably the most important thing is to follow your gut,” Hammerschlag said. “If you’re worried about going in the water… don’t go in the water.”

“A lot of people who have been bitten say they had a strange feeling before that, like they had an inner voice telling them to get out of the water and they didn’t hear it,” he said.

If a shark is nearby

A great white shark is swimming off Guadalupe Island in Baja California, Mexico.  It hosts one of the most prolific populations of great white sharks in the world.

A great white shark is swimming off Guadalupe Island in Baja California, Mexico. It hosts one of the most prolific populations of great white sharks in the world.

Kike Calvo/AP

don’t be scared

So you are surrounded by a shark. The worst thing you can do right now is panic.

“Don’t start splashing – you’re going to excite, ignite and promote the shark’s interest,” Peirce said.

Humans, monkeys, dogs and cats all have legs and hands. If we want to explore something, we pick it up and touch it, we feel it, we put it to our nose.

“The shark doesn’t have legs or hands, so if it wants to crawl, the only ability it has to do that is to put it in its mouth,” Peirce said.

“That’s why we often get exploratory bites that don’t result in death and sometimes don’t even cause serious injury. If you’re swimming and splashing, you’re almost inviting the shark to come in for an exploration or an attack bite.”

Maintain eye contact

Two teenage divers in Florida encountered two great white sharks within 48 hours. One of the teenagers even touched the predator.

As the shark swims around you, keep your head on a swivel and try to maintain eye contact.

“Sharks are ambush predators,” Peirce explained. “If you’re turning around and facing him while he’s around you, he’s not going to be as comfortable as if he was able to get up from behind.”

Hammerschlag agreed, saying you have to keep your body facing the shark so it knows you’re watching and following. Then slowly back the boat or shore towards the exit.

If you’re surfing, follow the shark with your board, Lowe said. “Letting the shark know it’s being watched.”

Marine biologists and shark divers Adriana Fragola and Kayleigh Grant show how this eye contact method works with tiger sharks. In a viral TikTok video (see at the top of the story), the shark is seen splashing Strawberry, grabbing her attention. He turns around, faces the approaching shark, stays still in the water and gently deflects the shark with his hand.

“You’re definitely never going to outswim or outrun a shark if it’s actually chasing you,” Fragola says in the video.

Be big or be small

This is where it gets complicated. If a shark is clearly in attack mode, you need to make it as big as possible in the water, according to Peirce.

“The bigger you are in the water, the more respect you get,” he said.

But if the shark seems to be just passing by, Peirce’s advice is to roll up into a ball.

“If a shark sees you as a competitor for its food source, that can be a reason to attack,” he explained.

“If a great white shark didn’t want to see me as a competitor — and didn’t show a lot of interest in me — I’d really curl up to show even less interest in me.”

If you are attacked

Don’t play dead

This is not a bear, but a shark. If you find yourself in an aggressive encounter, give it hell: punch, kick, and punch sensitive spots, but be careful where you aim.

“There’s all this talk about poking the shark in the nose. That’s fine, but remember there’s a mouth under the nose,” Peirce said.

“It’s a moving object in the water and you’re also not standing still, so what you don’t want to do is effectively punch yourself in the mouth or anywhere near it.”

A great white shark surfaces off the coast of Victoria, Australia.  If you are attacking and fighting, try to avoid the dangerous mouth and go for the gills behind the mouth near the pectoral fins.

A great white shark surfaces off the coast of Victoria, Australia. If you are attacking and fighting, try to avoid the dangerous mouth and go for the gills behind the mouth near the pectoral fins.

Kelvin Aitken/VWPics/AP

A good shot in the gills can also do the job: “Sharks are very sensitive, hitting a shark in the gills is not a bad idea.”

Do you have anything with you? If so, make it a weapon.

“If you’re a diver with an underwater camera, use it, if you’re a snorkeler, take off your snorkel and use it to poke the shark,” says Peirce.

“I’ve had a lot of sharks come, and it’s been enough to use a shark billy — a two- to three-foot metal rod — and give them a little nudge. The nose.”

It’s a good idea to swim with other people, Lowe said. This reduces the chances of an attack, he said, but if you do get bitten, have someone help you to the boat or shore.

Cut the corners

A great white shark swims across a sandbar off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in August 2021.

A great white shark swims across a sandbar off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in August 2021.

Charles Krupa/AP

If you’re a diver and you’re in trouble, try to get into a position where the shark can’t chase you, Peirce says.

“Keep your back to something like a coral reef. Then you only have one direction to look at. You’re protected from behind, for example, which allows you to keep the shark in sight in front of you and maybe swim up to the top of the reef slowly to where your boat is.”

Back up slowly

Displace as little water as possible. Try not to get hit and splash as you slowly swim backwards to shore.

“You have to try to keep the animal in sight and very slowly and gently try to swim backwards and into shallow water. Again, you have to be careful – big sharks can attack in very shallow water.”

Doing the above can help to some extent, but Peirce says the likelihood of escaping unscathed when attacked by a large shark is slim.

“If a great white shark is in attack mode, there’s not much you can do at that point,” he says.

This article was updated in 2022.