As debate over culling Great White sharks in Western Australia has brought our toothy aquatic frienemies into the spotlight, here on the East Coast, several Rightside surfers have already found themselves on the losing end of shark encounters in 2014. Though no serious injuries have been reported thus far, shark attacks are always a scary ordeal and, even in minor cases, can result in an expensive ER bill or a recovery period spent out of the water. The bottom line is, nobody wants to get bit by a shark. And, truthfully, most sharks don’t really want to bite us either. So why does it happen, and what can East Coast surfers do to minimize their risks?
According to the International Shark Attack File, curated by renowned shark expert George Burgess, of the Florida Program For Shark Research, the average number of unprovoked shark attacks around the world has been steadily climbing since 1900. It’s a surprising statistic, considering that the worldwide populations of sharks have actually declined during that period as a result of overfishing and habitat loss. The increased number of shark attacks, then, results from the fact that humans are spending more time in the water these days than ever before, providing greater opportunity for a not-so-cordial chance encounter between man and fish. And naturally, surfers, as the population subset spending the greatest amount of time in the water, have become the group most affected by shark attacks.
About 46 percent of all shark attack cases in 2013 involved either surfers or other aquatic board sports enthusiasts, and in many ways, that number makes perfect sense. Not only are we spending the most time in the water, but from a shark’s perspective, we also make ourselves quite appealing. We sit right in the surf zone, where sharks love to hang out, and, ingeniously, we do a lot of splashing and thrashing around, which mimics the activity of sharks’ natural prey. So, understandably, surfers are the most at-risk population when it comes to shark attacks. And as it turns out, East Coast surfers, in particular, have the greatest chance of being bitten.
In 2013, 44 percent of all the world’s shark attacks occurred along East Coast shores, with 32 percent taking place in Florida waters alone. The Sunshine State consistently reports almost half of all shark attacks in the US, with more than a third of those incidents taking place solely in Volusia County. Home to the famed New Smyrna Inlet surf break, Volusia County is a convergence zone for both high levels of aquatic recreation (A.K.A. people in the water) and an abundance of marine fauna (A.K.A. hungry sharks chasing fish). When that perfect storm of factors lines up just right, you’re not gonna have a good time.
But, luckily for East Coasters, there are ways to reduce your risk of shark attack while surfing. First of all, sharks are always more likely to attack a solitary individual than a group, so that’s one of many great reasons for using the buddy system every time you paddle out. And, obviously, common sense would also dictate not to enter the water if you are bleeding from an open wound, but ladies, this one might actually apply to you too if it happens to be that time of the month, so be sure to take extra caution. Also, believe it or not, the accessories you wear can attract sharks. Shiny jewelry mimics the shine of fish scales, so ditch the bling before hitting the water. And, since sharks are constantly on the lookout for color contrast while hunting, they can be enticed by uneven tan lines on hands and feet or by neon colors, which means you might want to reconsider those ‘80s inspired boardshorts and leg ropes.
There are also certain warning signs visible from the beach that should tip you off to think twice before paddling out. If there’s sewage runoff nearby or any other tasty shark snacks floating through the lineup, like chum or bait from fishing activity, you might want to find a different break to surf at. It’s also never a good idea to be out in the water at night or during twilight hours, since sharks do most of their hunting at this time. Murky water can be dangerous too, because sharks can’t see as well and therefore have more difficulty discerning between a hand or foot and a baitfish. Speaking of baitfish, if you see a large school of them or catch a glimpse of seabirds diving into the water around you to chow down, know that there’s a good chance feeding sharks are present as well. And finally, if you see a shark while out surfing, make the decision to paddle in. There’s absolutely no shame in that. Sharks are the top aquatic predators, and it’s important that we pay them respect.
So, the moral of this story is: next time you’re out surfing, be sure to take the appropriate precautions to prevent shark attack, but most importantly, breathe easy knowing that sharks are not “out to get you.” The vast majority of shark attacks are just quick hit-and-run nibbles resulting from a simple case of mistaken identity. And, in the context of everyday life, the danger of shark attack is really quite minuscule overall. In fact, you’re 75 times more likely to die by random lightning strike than by shark attack. You’d even be more likely to die in a sand hole collapse (whatever that is) than by shark attack. So, just stay mindful and do your thing while letting sharks do theirs. On East Coast shores, the ocean is plenty big enough to share.
(Thanks to George Burgess and the Florida Museum of Natural History for providing the scientific facts and data contained in this article)