Todd L Ross
First of all, understand that your risk of a shark attack is incredibly small unless you purposely swim around sharks. Beaches can be dangerous places, but sharks aren’t a serious risk at most of them; according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), your chances of drowning are 1 in 2 million, while your chances of a shark attack are 1 in 11.5 million.
Shark attack fatalities are even more rare. In 2018, four people died from shark-related injuries, and only 66 unprovoked shark attacks were reported worldwide. In contrast, people killed about 100 million sharks that year, and many species are critically endangered—instead of worrying about shark attacks, you’re better off learning ways to help with shark conservation efforts. This page from the blog Shark Sider is a great resource to that end.
With that said, here’s what you need to know if you’re one of the extremely unlucky few involved in a shark attack:
Avoid swimming near sharks in the first place.
This might sound obvious, but by the time a shark shows aggression, you’re in an extremely bad position. While you might be able to fight the fish off, you’re probably going to sustain some serious injuries, so the safest course of action is to stay away from shark feeding areas.
ISAF recommends avoiding beaches used by fishermen. If you see a tremendous number of diving seabirds, the waters are likely baited, and your chances of a shark encounter will be relatively high. Avoid swimming in the dark or during twilight hours, which is when sharks are most active.
Don’t do things to attract sharks.
Don’t go swimming in shark habitats if you’re bleeding, for instance, as sharks have a keen sense of smell. Avoid wearing jewelry or bright-colored clothing, and immediately leave the water if you see sharks.
Stay near the shore, and wherever possible, stay with a group of people—sharks are unlikely to attack groups.
Face the shark (and don’t panic).
When you see a shark, you’ll want to get to shore as quickly as possible, but swimming too quickly could attract the animals' attention.
“Don't start splashing around,” Richard Peirce, a shark expert and former chairman of Shark Trust, a shark conservation charity, told CNN. “You’re just going to excite, incite, and encourage the shark’s interest.”
Peirce recommends keeping the shark in front of you, as it’s less likely to attack when it can’t ambush. If the shark isn’t showing interest in you, curl into a ball until it passes, then slowly make your way to shore.
If it’s clearly targeting you, however, you’ll want to make yourself look as large as possible. Like many predators, sharks want an easy meal. By expanding your body, you may be able to ward off an attack. Keep cutting off angles to prevent the shark from sneaking behind you (most are ambush predators) and alert any nearby swimmers to the danger.
Start fighting (and keep fighting).
You definitely don’t want to play dead during a shark attack—if the shark’s looking for a meal, that will just entice it. Be proactive. Start punching.
Experts recommend attacking the shark’s snout with an inanimate object—while the shark retreats from your blow, attempt to escape (more on how to escape in the next section).
You can punch with your hands if an object isn’t available, but remember, thrusting your hands toward an apex predator’s mouth generally isn’t safe (then again, at this point, safety’s pretty much out the window). If the shark bites, try to claw at its gills and eyes.
Depending on the species, this may or may not work. Great Whites are sharp-sighted predators, and they often take “taste tests" when hunting prey. Generally speaking, they don’t like people—we probably don’t taste too great—so after an initial bite, the shark will likely swim off.
Other species might be more tenacious. Tiger sharks, for instance, are notoriously indiscriminate about their meals, so they’ll probably keep coming back. Keep fighting. Sharks respect power, and you can’t really hide once a shark identifies you as prey.
Retreat to the shore.
Make your way back to the shore while displacing as little water as possible. Signaling panic could draw the shark back toward you.
If possible, keep facing the shark while you move toward safety. Once you’re on shore, seek medical attention if necessary, then consider how you’ll tell the story of your awesome new scars.
To reiterate: Sharks aren’t a serious threat to humans. A bit of common sense will protect you from most attacks. Still, we suppose there’s nothing wrong with staying prepared.