The Truth About Shark Attacks and Surfers

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A shark lurks beneath a surfer at a Southern California beach.

On July 19, 2015, Australian surfer Mick Fanning was competing in a South African surf championship at Jeffreys Bay. Fanning, a three time world champion, had just entered the water when he was approached by a large great white shark. “I felt something get stuck in my leg rope and I was kicking trying to get it away. I just saw fins. I didn’t see the teeth. I instantly jumped away and then it just kept coming at my board. I punched it in the back and started swimming and screaming.”

Fanning survived the encounter but the competition was cancelled. Two years later, Fanning returned to the same competition. He and another surfer were pulled from the water after another shark sighting. Fanning retired from pro surfing in 2018 saying, “I still love the game but can’t find the motivation and dedication required to compete for world titles anymore.”

Surfers and sharks have long co-existed. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), there were 702 unprovoked shark attacks on humans from 2005–2014. 53% of these attacks were on surfers. Shark attacks hit an all-time high in 2015 with 98 unprovoked attacks worldwide, 50 on surfers. Six of the attacks were fatal. Pro surfing competitions now utilize camera drones and sonar devices to detect sharks. They employ motorboats and jet skis in the belief that sharks avoid loud and busy areas.

Along the California coast, surfers have a nickname for the Great White Shark. They call it “The Landlord.” Getting attacked by a shark is every surfer’s worst nightmare. “People always ask me, aren’t you afraid of sharks?” Steve Adelman, a surfer from Ojai says. “I tell them, no. But when I think about it… let’s just say I try not to think about it.”

In 2014, Kaleo Roberson was surfing with his three sons at Maalea Beach in Hawaii. “Everything was normal then off to the left I saw this weird ripple like a weird current. All of a sudden I see this mouth the size of a trash can coming at me.” Roberson swung his board at a large tiger shark and luckily landed a few strong blows. The shark swam away and Roberson made it safely to shore.

In Byron Bay, Australia, two surfers were killed in 2015. One was a 13-year-old boy. A board riders club met with police and politicians demanding action. Surf pro Stu Kennedy said, “It’s fair to say everyone’s shitting themselves at the moment.” The overwhelming majority of Byron Bay surfers wanted authorities to hunt and kill large sharks in local waters.

This exact thing happened on Reunion Island, a French governed island in the Indian Ocean. In 2015 after six shark attacks, two fatal, authorities banned surfing and swimming on the tourist beaches. They authorized a mass shark slaughter in the surrounding waters. The strategy appeared to work as there were no shark attacks from 2016–2018. Then in 2019, sharks killed two more people, a surfer and a fisherman. The popular beaches are now protected by thick rope nets.

National Geographic cited the fact that for every human being killed by a shark, humans kill two million sharks. Experts say you are more likely to get struck by lightning than die from a shark attack. But according to the Florida Museum of National History, there are now more shark attack fatalities on humans then lightning strike fatalities in California, Hawaii and Florida.

Shark attacks increased between 2014–2018. (They went down in 2019.) Marine biologists blame over-fishing and loss of habitat causing sharks to come closer to shore in search of food. Global warming trends have made previously frigid coastlines more appealing to sharks. As the human population grows, more people spend time in the ocean. This increases the odds of shark-human contact. George Burgess, curator of ISAF says, “Sharks plus humans equal attacks.”

The United States led the world in 2015 shark attacks with 59. Only one of these was fatal (in Hawaii). Thirty of the attacks occurred in Florida. New Smyrna Beach in Florida is considered the “Shark Beach Capital of the World.”

Comedian Robert Schimmel had a great routine about shark attacks. He said, “What you do is let the shark get up to you then you punch him in the face. When that doesn’t work, you poke him in the eye with your stump.”

For years, shark researchers discussed definitive actions to avoid aggressive sharks. They suggested punching sharks in the snout or poking at a shark’s gills. But with the thrashing involved in a shark attack, this could easily lead to a surfer thrusting an arm directly into a shark’s jaws. The common wisdom today is to use the surfboard as a protective shield. If a surfer has no choice but to confront a shark, experts now say they should poke at the shark’s eyes, not his gills or snout.

Ralph Collier of the Shark Research Committee says that if a surfer spots a shark, the most important factor is how you exit the water. “You should minimize your disturbance of the water by using smooth and rhythmic strokes to propel your board toward shore. Avoid erratic and agitated movements. If you see a floating kelp colony, move toward it. Adult white sharks tend to avoid kelp forests.”

Though the ISAF has rated the odds of getting killed by a shark at one in 3.8 million, they did compile a list of tips to avoid sharks. Don’t surf at dusk or dawn when sharks commonly feed. Don’t ignore posted warning signs indicating shark sightings. Surf in groups since sharks tend to attack individuals. Don’t wear reflective jewelry that resemble fish scales. Don’t surf if you’re bleeding and don’t pee in the water. Both blood and urine attract sharks. Don’t surf where people are fishing. Avoid river mouths and channels, areas of high fish population and low visibility. And the final recommended action to avoid a shark attack: stay out of the water.

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Loren is a writer and woodcut artist based in Los Angeles. He teaches printmaking and creative writing to kids and adults.

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