How Scared Should I Be of Getting Attacked by a Shark?

Sharks are giant fish that mostly keep to themselves, but sometimes make people's limbs disappear.
18 June 2016, 4:00am
Photo by Flickr user Andrew Bellamy

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In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of the world he lives in. We hope it helps you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

I mostly avoid swimming. Not because I'm particularly afraid of the ocean, it's just I look very out of place inside of it. More like someone who lost his rekel on the way to the synagogue and fell into the Pacific than someone out for a leisurely swim. But this summer I'm moving closer to the beach, and I'm planning to try something I've never considered in 31 years of being a Californian—surfing.

My timing couldn't be worse, it seems. According to a story from Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, the Pacific coastline is teeming with sharks, and that's in keeping with an overall trend that might be tied to global warming. That encouraging piece of news follows a report of a non-fatal shark attack last month off of Newport Beach—the only beach where I've gone swimming in the past ten years. "I've seen more white sharks this year than I have in the previous thirty," a beach safety officer named Claude Panis told the Times.

"A large tiger shark will crunch a sea turtle like a taco chip" —George Burgess

But according to George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there aren't actually more sharks than there were in years past. "The areas where shark attacks mostly occur are the areas where humans enter the water the most," he said. If anything, Burgess told me, shark populations have dwindled, and despite the recent uptick in bite-y white sharks, it's unlikely that any popular beach has such a concentration of them that it should be avoided altogether.

Although some places are "sharkier than others," he said. "They don't call the area off of Monterey and San Francisco and the Farallon Islands the 'Red Triangle' for no reason." The International Shark Attack File keeps a map of shark attacks, but Burgess told me not to read too much into that. "You'd be sadly mistaken if you looked at those maps and said, 'This is where shark attacks occur or don't occur,'" he cautioned.

The International Shark Attack File's summary of 2015 says that, at 59 attacks, it was a banner year for hungry sharks in the US. But that's approximately the same number of people in America who earned Super Bowl rings that year. Estimates vary on the number of people who die in an average year, but Burgess told me it's around six. That's less than the rate at which people die by having TVs fall on them.

But shark attacks are a special brand of horror, because they come seemingly at random from the quiet deep, and the injuries can be as devastating as they are abrupt. "Any predator will try to grab at the biggest chunk of body that's available, which in our cases would be our torso and our thighs," Burgess explained. And bigger sharks have no problem biting clean through human bones, he warned, adding that "a large tiger shark will crunch a sea turtle like a taco chip."

But he pointed out that after the initial chomp shark behaviorists are noticing a feeding behavior in great whites that makes attacks relatively easy for humans to survive.

"It appears that white sharks work on a strategy of grabbing prey, usually swinging it in its mouth, holding it for a while, and then oftentimes letting go and circling the area," Burgess explained. Animals like seals that have just been chewed on by a great white shark will bleed out until they're dead, or too weak to fight back, Burgess told me. Human shark attack victims, however, tend to scream and find their way to a boat or a beach—a much better survival strategy.

Still, strategies for surviving an attack are often less important than just following basic safety guidelines for a day at the beach. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the areas where white sharks like to hang around are sea line and seal colonies," he said. He also encouraged me to avoid swimming between dusk and dawn, and to stay away from spots where people are fishing from the shore, or spots where sea birds are diving. Where there are schools of delicious fish, there are likely larger fish eating them.

But surfers either can't wrap their heads around, or don't give a shit about, the single most basic principle of safety: If someone sees a shark, get the fuck out of the water. "A lot of surfers tend to ignore that," Burgess said.

When surfer Mick Fanning was attacked last year, an onlooker had just noticed a shark, and the competition had continued. In 2013, when a surfer was fatally attacked off the coast of Australia, another surfer named Marc Baldan stayed in the water all day, later explaining to the press that surfing is too much of "a release," to give up just because of a shark. "I don't know what I would do without it," he said. "It's not until you see one that you think twice."

Like Baldan, I will try surfing this summer, and I'll follow Burgess's advice: "Accept the risk that there are animals out there that can, and occasionally do, do us harm." But I might just be at an advantage when it comes to sharks, because unlike avid surfers who seem to consider the vague possibility of death-by-shark to be a simple fact of life, if anyone yells something that even rhymes with "shark," after I piss myself, I'm running for the shore.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Getting Attacked by a Shark?

2/5: Taking Normal Precautions

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.