Surfing with Sharks | What You Can Do

What do you think are the odds of you encountering a shark while you’re surfing? According to Florida Museum, 61% of the total cases of shark bites in the world are related to surfing and other board sports. It’s because of the constant paddles, wipeouts, and splashes in the water that makes you look like an injured prey, therefore luring the men in the grey suits in.

It can be scary, but you should know that the chance of a shark attack is actually quite low. You can even compare it to getting struck by a lightning or hitting the lottery jackpot; however, that doesn’t mean you should take unnecessary risks and go look for trouble. Sharks are apex predators that you share the ocean with — one wrong move can lead to attacks that may cause you injury or death. 

For this article, we’ll help you understand why sharks attack surfers, what you can do to avoid these situations, and famous surfing spots where these predators are known to lurk underneath the water surface. 

Why do sharks attack surfers?

Sharks, similar to orcas, are ocean predators that play an integral part in the ecosystem. They provide the scraps for the organisms to eat and help regulate the ocean population by preying on the weak. 

Sharks are designed to hunt, but you should know that humans are not part of their diet. They have a slow digestion process which makes them very selective of their food, a reason why they often eat seals and sea lions — marine mammals that are high in fat content. So why do you think some sharkies would chomp on surfers? It’s because they’re curious.

Surprising as it seems, smart dogs and toothy sharks have one thing in common, and it is by how they investigate things with their mouths. Sharks may circle on a person because they’re curious and they want to find out if they’re edible. The shark’s goal: to have a test bite, not to eat. Once they have a bite, it’s seldom they would go for another. Humans consist of a lot of bones, see, and sharks don’t really like to consume that. This is the reason why sharks ‘hit and run’, and most victims survive the attacks.

Sharks have good vision and sense of smell. Their impressive eyesight is ten times much better than humans, and this allows them to hunt in both daylight and low light conditions. However, when the water is murky, their vision becomes dull, which makes it challenging for them to see clearly and hunt for their prey during stormy days. This brings us to another possible theory why sharks attack humans —  mistaken identity.

Based on research, sharks (specifically the great whites) also bite on humans because they often mistake us as seals, a.k.a their primary prey. In a test conducted by experts, they observed how a shark’s retina will be able to recognize the visual motions of a seal and a swimmer paddling with a surfboard from the perspective of viewing things below the water surface. Turned out, sharks cannot differentiate the two; therefore, proving the theory to be true.

Lastly, the water temperature also affects a shark’s behavioral pattern. In Western Australia for instance, statistics show that when the water reads at 18 to 20 degrees, great white sharks are more prone to attack humans. Meanwhile, in other places of the world where there are dry spells or drought, attacks are also frequent because of the increased interaction and close proximity of the sharks and people at the beach. 

Surfing with Sharks

If you come face-to-face with a shark, or you see it swimming from under your board while you’re surfing, what would you do? In the worst- case scenario of shark encounters, here are some basic principles and gentle reminders you need to keep in mind to avoid being the shark’s next sample meal. 

Stay calm

Staying calm is a pearl of conventional wisdom and probably the simplest tip of all, but the most difficult to execute when you’re actually in the moment of being confronted by a six-foot shark. A typical reaction of most people when they see a shark is to shout “Shark!” or paddle like a mad man towards the shore. But if you do this, you will just put more attention on yourself and make you appear like injured or easy prey in the shark’s eyes. 

In this situation, here’s what you can do. If you see a triangular dorsal fin and a tailfin slicing through the water surface coming towards you, do not panic and try your best to keep a level head. As casually as you can, paddle your way towards the shore. If that’s not an option, stay still. Keep your feet and your arms up your surfboard. If the shark detects no movements, it will most probably lose its interest and move on to another target. 

Know the shark’s direction

Always keep an eye on any uninvited toothy guests. Sharks look for lone targets, so they usually stay away from people in the lineup; however, in a situation where they do get close, it’s best to huddle up as a group. Track the shark’s movements, avoid the direction where it’s going, and head to the shore as safely and calmly as you can. 

Avoid surfing in murky waters or low-light conditions

Bull sharks are often spotted in murky water sources like brackish river mouths because that’s where they feed and reproduce. If you see lots of seals and seabirds, sharks are also probably there looking for prey. Avoid surfing if you can.

A lot of surfers also like to ride the waves in early light and before evening; however, these periods are high-risk conditions. In low-light settings, shark attacks are most likely to occur. The poor visibility enables the shark to see its prey’s silhouette from below and move without their target knowing where it is, making it ideal for the shark to do a direct ambush. If you’re unfortunate, that prey might probably be you.

Know what to look out for

Other things you should be keeping an eye on are the migration of the fishes and the sudden increase in the density of turtles and fish spawns in your area. Most often, these indicate an increase in shark activity. If you hear of shark sightings, shark week, or small sharks swimming on your favorite surf spot, we suggest you stop surfing for a while. Always remember, there’s no need to risk the chances of you encountering a shark and losing an arm or leg for one good surfing session. 

Don’t present yourself as a snack

Bull sharks who often frequent in murky waters detect their prey by looking at the gleam of their fish scales. That said, you shouldn’t wear sparkling pieces of jewelry or bright colors when surfing so you don’t look like a prey in a shark’s POV. On the other hand, the contrasting and bright colors also attract the attention of sharks, making you a specific target for attacks. 

Since sharks hunt on the weak and injured, you have to constantly keep moving in different directions — just like what predators often do. This makes your movements unpredictable; therefore making it hard for them to follow you. 

To avoid being the menu of the day, it’s crucial you appear more threatening and intimidating than the shark itself. To do this, you need to make yourself look bigger by stretching out your arms. Another tip is to paint the bottom of your surfboard with eyes to discourage sharks from choosing you as a target. Sharks hate eye-to-eye contacts.

Make use of a shark deterrent

No nets or shark culls can keep the entire population of sharks from coming in the coastlines; however, there are deterrents you can use to protect yourself from the sharks. Some of those are Anti Shark 100, SharkBanz, Shark Shield, Shark Mitigation wetsuits, and SharkStopper leash. Most of these things work by sending magnetic waves to intercept the electro-receptors of sharks, making them oblivious of your presence.

Avoid letting your body fluids contaminate the water

Sharks can detect a single drop of blood in a million drops of water; however, they’re only attracted to the blood of fishes and other sea mammals. Thankfully, they don’t see your blood as a stimulus. But, if you have a large cut and your blood gushes out of the water, the electricity of your heartbeat will increase, and this will create a signal that sharks can detect. Since your heartbeat will also beat faster in this kind of circumstance, the sharks will perceive you as a scared and injured prey. 

How about your urine and other body fluids? When the sea’s too cold, it’s totally normal to pull on some wettie warmer; however, if you’re swimming with the Noahs, you should avoid creating or leaving a scent they can follow. 

Know how to protect yourself from a shark attack

You see a shark coming towards you, it’s curious, and you’re on the verge of panic — when this happens, here’s what you need to do.

First, breathe in and swim towards the shark. This is a way to intimidate and to make yourself look like a similar predator in the shark’s eyes. Do not turn your back on it and maintain eye contact. If the shark comes for an attack, do your best to hit its most sensitive areas such as the gills and eyes. Always remember, the best way to survive a shark is by confronting it. 

If you get bitten, raise the wounded area above the water to help stop the bleeding. When the shark starts to swim away from you, paddle your way towards the shore. Watch how pro-surfer, Mick Fanning, defended himself against a shark attack in the video below.

The Sharkiest Surfing Locations in the World

If you believe in the myth that there are no sharks in a surfing spot because there are dolphins in there, you’re in for some bad news. Both of these predators are carnivores; therefore, it’s possible they hunt in the same locations. The following are some of the most shark-infested destinations you should avoid surfing in. 

  • Smyrna Beach, Volusia County – known as the ‘Shark Attack Capital of the World’ 
  • False Bay – 70% of the sharks consist of great whites, mostly located in deeper water and behind the surfing zones
  • Mozambique Channel
  • Ballina, New South Wales
  • Second Beach, South Africa – known as the ‘Most Dangerous Beach for Shark Attacks’

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the kinds of sharks that attack surfers? 

The three most common sharks that attack people are the great white sharks (known as one of the most aggressive who prey on injured and sick whales), bull sharks, and tiger sharks (large scavengers and opportunistic feeders).

Q: Can you surf with sharks?

Yes, it’s possible to surf in some of the most shark-infested surfing spots; however, It is not advisable to surf when there are shark sightings in a certain area because it’s highly dangerous. 

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