A detailed look at shark behavior and tendencies and how that knowledge can save your life
|Despite the long ongoing run of Shark Week and the nervous fascination with these creatures shared by so many, there still seems to be a gross misunderstanding of these animals and the role they play in our world. This is not at all surprising of course, considering the fact that an attack by one of these fish comes with it an added fear factor that land-based predators usually cannot claim in their attacks upon humans; the fear of unknowing even if a large predator is literally circling you. Indeed, the thought of being stalked by an unseen force while trying to enjoy the surf brings a terror that is second only to the thought of that same stalker torpedoing from the dark depths to eat you alive!
Let's try to keep things in perspective though. For starters, we have to remember two very important things in regard to swimming in the ocean with sharks (and yes, anytime you get into the ocean, you are swimming with sharks as most sea life congregates around the coasts of the world much like us land animals do).
The first fact to remember is that our incessant desire to frolic in the wild ocean simply for the pleasure of it is objectively unnatural in the natural world. By all rights, we really don't belong in there anymore than a porpoise belongs on land. This is not to say that to have such desire and to act upon it is bad or irresponsible or stupid by any means. It is simply to say that upon embarking on such a venture, it is up to the individual to understand fully what they are doing before doing it. By willingly putting themselves into a wild environment where they concede all illusions of control, they must accept the risks and potential consequences of such actions. Whether by riptides, sharks and/or other potentially harmful sea creatures, a swim in the ocean is no joke and must be accompanied by logic and understanding. Ignorance of the law cannot save you in court and ignorance of the wilderness can easily get you killed. In this respect, knowledge truly is power.
That leads us to the second key thing to remember when jumping into the ocean; if you're going to take the risk, know how to minimize your risks! That may sound both redundant and ridiculously contradictory, but think about the astronauts of our world. Strapping into a modified ICBM to hurtle through the atmosphere into Earth's orbit and potentially beyond is obviously a very risky endeavor no matter how you slice it. Yet despite this, every precaution is taken to ensure as much safety for those individuals as humanly possible. In time, with enough knowledge and safeguards, the sum total of preventative measures can continue to add up to result in a rather significant decrease in risk in an otherwise insane task. The same logic can be applied to journeying into where the wild things are, such as the ocean.
We should all know the basics by now: never go into the water if you're bleeding, don't go in wearing your shiny jewelry, don't separate yourself from the crowd, don't swim with your dog, don't go swim with a bunch of seals and do not approach a floating whale carcass (or any other carcass for that matter). I've always felt that the bits about not swimming with your dog and not swimming alone are usually the toughest pills to swallow for people. Resisting those temptations can be tricky, especially for avid dog lovers and self-proclaimed "loners" like myself. However, like the fact that lonely prey is easy prey, science has proven that the "doggy paddle" gives off a very distinct vibration in the water that carries for miles; a vibration that sharks find irresistible, therefore keeping your dog on the beach would be a huge favor for both yourself and the pup. A lesser known, yet equally important tip to remember alongside the "not swimming with seals and dogs" rule would be staying away from schools of fish. This would seem like something that we never need to worry about, as it is common knowledge just how skittish fish are of not only humans, but of even a simple shadow. (Ask any fisherman). However, that is precisely the point I am trying to make here; if you're standing in the surf minding your own business trying to cool off and suddenly feel a bunch of fish swim past and in between your legs, then you should immediately get out of the water, because that is obviously not normal. That is usually a good sign that there is a hungry shark nearby chasing that very same school of fish and you're now in the way. While it is true that sharks don't generally prefer the taste of humans over their usual and favorite prey items, that doesn't mean that some won't make an attempt if they're hungry enough; especially if a human is just making it too easy to pass up. That tip about avoiding schools of fish also translates to avoiding fishing lures or general areas of fishing activity. Shark dangers notwithstanding, this should be avoided for no other reason than common courtesy. Not much can more quickly anger a person trying to fish than when some pesky bathers start swimming near their lines scaring away all the potential catches and again, you'd be putting yourself in harm's way. Just don't do it.
Sharks themselves can indirectly assist in your preventative measures against attack. They do this by their relative predictability and body language. Not to say that sharks are all-around predictable, because that would be a dangerous and largely incorrect assumption. However, there are certain aspects about the way sharks live that can be used to help reduce the chances of unwelcome encounters. For instance, coastal locations are just as important to the sharks' livelihood as it is to any human who chooses to live near the ocean or vacation there. All sharks are migratory creatures and tend to visit the same places every year if they have any kind of success in hunting from the previous year. For example, Atlantic great whites love hunting off the coasts of the eastern-northeastern coasts of America up towards Canada in the spring and summer months and will move south to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in the fall and winter. These kinds of shark migrations happen worldwide. This is why there are known "hotspots" or "shark-infested waters" in the world. These are areas where shark species of all kinds learned generations ago that prey is always abundant and so they'll return like clockwork every year. Of course, this is not an exact science and sharks, like all animals, have different personalities and temperaments from individual to individual. If arriving at a usual hunting ground proves to have less-than-desirable amounts of prey compared to the previous year, some sharks will simply lose patience faster than others and move onto a completely different region of coastline. Then there are those exceptional waters like Hawaii, where members of the dangerous tiger shark species will hang around all year due to the awesome conditions, much like many humans who will visit the islands and never leave. This is why it is so important for us humans to learn a cursory history of any beach we decide to visit in relation to the potential dangers it presents. Just like a beach that has a bad history of riptides causing the deaths of unexpecting swimmers, a beach with any history of shark encounters is sure to have repeats of said encounters. Like it or not, this same logic must also apply to rivers and lakes thanks to one species in particular, the ferocious bull shark. This is the one and only "man-eater class" of shark that can adapt to fresh water and salt water. They also stand apart from other species due to their extremely high levels of testosterone, which is the highest levels of any animal on the planet (land or sea). Of course, this is only an issue if you're planning on taking a dip in a body of freshwater that leads to an ocean. Again, a little bit of research on the part of any individual looking to vacation on the water cannot be overstated.
Much like their preferences for certain locations, sharks also have somewhat predictable behaviors or tells. Most sharks are equally cautious as they are inquisitive. This makes sense when you think about it; they'd have to be naturally inquisitive in order to make the most out of every possible opportunity to eat, yet they're not trying to put up a fight for every possible meal either. The reason for this is probably because the most sensitive parts of its body also happen to be adjacent to where its jaws are located. It's weak spots include: the eyes, the gills and the underside of its snout containing the ampullae of lorenzini (the fluid-filled pores it uses to detect vibrations and electrical signals in the water, which are critical to its predatory function and survival). Any potential meal is going to fight back tooth and nail when grabbed by a shark, so the last thing the shark wants is to get seriously injured by its own prey item. This is why sharks prefer to use stealth and ambush tactics rather than head-on smash and grab attacks. They will often bump into potential prey items first to get an idea of the size and strength of it before they decide whether they want to take the chance of attacking or not. Even then, if they're still not sure what it is that they're even looking at, they'll give a test bite first. This is why there are so many more people in the world that can claim to have received a small "nip" from a shark or a "bump" than there are people who were unfortunate enough to be victims of a full-blown attack. However, it's because of their impressive size that a mere test bite to them can mean a very serious injury to us.
For divers, snorkelers and spearfishermen enjoying the ocean beneath the waves, seeing a shark in your vicinity inherently gives you a far greater advantage than the comparatively blind and helpless masses playing in the surf. Remember, sharks prefer to be stealthy; therefore they are generally less emboldened when they know that they no longer hold the element of surprise. Furthermore, a human under the water can actually gauge the "mood" of a shark by reading its body language. Sharks have a few tells that they knowingly give away with the full intent of sending clear messages. These are literal warning signs given prior to any physical contact made. Sharks with their pectoral fins (side fins) pointing downward as they swim around in your field of vision is a clear sign of a shark that is in a very bad mood and it's letting you know that you are not welcome. I've seen footage of an oceanic whitetip shark with its fins in this position as it was passing by a couple of divers. The shark gave the divers two "swim-bys" showing off its pectoral fins when finally, after the divers made no attempt to retreat to their boat and only kept going deeper, the shark moved in a third time to give one of the divers a quick and painful bite to the shoulder before regaining distance. The divers finally got the message and returned to their boat. The bitten man was fine, but had the shark actually wanted to make a meal of him, the attack would have been very different from the get-go. This seemed to be more of a territorial dispute, in my opinion. The shark saw them as unwelcome competitors and simply wanted them to leave. Referring to this same footage, the shark in the video was demonstrating another tell-tale sign of aggression aside from the position of its pectorals; its speed. During the initial "swim-bys", the shark was whipping its tail back and forth fairly quickly allowing it to move in a constant state of "half-attack speed". Granted, the shark was certainly not showing off its full capabilities during the first two passings of these divers. This was made painfully clear during the third pass when moving in for the bite, as it kicked it in from second to third gear. However, when viewing most any footage of sharks that are calmly cruising along amongst divers and underwater cameramen, it is a night and day difference. A calm shark will cruise along with its pectoral fins much flatter like wings on an airplane and it will barely need to move its tail at all as it meanders at a "walking speed" in the ocean. These are the sharks that divers and shark-enthusiasts love to go free-swimming with as there comes to be an unspoken understanding and respect between man and shark. There is no darting around back and forth at intense speeds on the part of the shark and certainly no bites. This kind of body language seems to be universal across all species of shark. A few professional divers in the world have even proven that one can actually free swim with a 20 ft. great white when this peaceful demeanor is being exhibited.
It should go without saying, but do not go attempt to free-swim with dangerous sharks just because you notice they seem to be calm and accepting of human presence. As stated earlier, sharks are like any other animal in the world in that they have different personalities shaped by different experiences as they struggle to survive in the ocean. Even veteran shark divers will always say there's never any guarantees that nothing bad will happen when getting into the water with them. They just understand the inherent risk and know how to minimize the chances of being seriously hurt or killed. However, these same experts will also always elude to not only the inherent risk taken by the average beach-goer anytime they enter the waves, but also to their own personal preference of being under the water with the sharks so they can keep an eye on the elusive ninja rather than on the surface not knowing. Either way, all people should be aware of and accept the fact that sharks are always out there, which is the way it should be. They're a critical factor in keeping the ecosystem in balance. Without them, seal, porpoise, squid and sea turtle populations would skyrocket leaving many fish populations decimated; especially since we humans have also staked our own rather large claim in the hunting of fishes worldwide. People forget that while sharks can eat fish like it's nobody's business, they actually prefer larger prey items such as the ones listed above and those larger animals prey almost exclusively on fish. This works out beautifully since we don't have much interest in chowing down on seals and porpoises. On the contrary, the sharks' primary food groups are actually our direct competitors in the game of "cat and mouse" on the seas. And for those who would say, "but sharks are fish as well, so they're fair game for us"; fish they may be, but they're unlike any other fish you could order in a restaurant. Unlike the fish that we are accustomed to eating, sharks actually have a much higher degree of mercury in their tissue so they're not even good for us. All the more reason to leave them alone and let them keep on doing what they do to help keep things in check out there. Meanwhile, we can have pride in enjoying the freedom of being the top predator on the planet, so long as we retain our humility, continue to gain knowledge of the natural world and garner as much respect for said world as we would like for ourselves.