Shark Attacks

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Summer is when people head out to the shore and take in the Great Outdoors. Millions will do just that, and the vast majority of beach-goers will experience nothing but a great time. On occasion, however, a person may run afoul of a sea creature during their time in the water. It’s their home, after all, and some can get pretty aggressive when disturbed or when looking for a meal.

When you think about encounters with dangerous sea creatures, you’re probably thinking about sharks. It’s true that running afoul of a shark when you get in the water is a very rare occurrence. Recently, however, there has been more shark sightings and even attacks. Five shark attacks have been reported in the past two weeks off Long Island in New York. It’s not absolutely certain why, but some blame warmer waters due to climate change, others an increase in prey animals near well-populated coastal communities.


All oceans have sharks, although only about 20 or so species are known to attack humans. Types that have documented attacks in the record include:

  • Great white sharks
  • Tiger sharks
  • Bull sharks
  • Blue sharks
  • Oceanic whitetip sharks
  • Hammerhead sharks
  • Mako sharks
  • Lemon sharks
  • Grey nurse sharks

It should be noted that grey nurse sharks are not especially aggressive and usually bite as a result of being disturbed by swimmers or divers.


Every sailor’s nightmare is to be thrown overboard in shark-infested waters. Sharks are perfectly engineered to live and hunt in the sea; humans there are like, well, a fish out of water.

If you’ve even seen a shark bite, you realize the importance of prevention. You certainly want to prevent them rather than treat them. Make sure your people:

•             Avoid areas where sharks regularly patrol, such as rapid changes in depth from shallow to deep water, deep channels, and the spaces between sand bars. Sharks sometimes spend time in the area where rivers meet the sea, where silt makes it more difficult to see them. Stay out of low-visibility water.

•             Stay out of the water if bleeding. Sharks have a very keen sense of smell (sharks have nostrils, not for breathing, but for smelling) and are attracted to even small amounts. That includes blood from menstruation. Although there is controversy regarding this, other substances that might possibly attract sharks are urine and feces.

•             Avoid wearing or carrying shiny objects, which can be mistaken by sharks for fish scales. Swimmers should avoid wearing high-contrast clothing. sharks can distinguish light colors from dark, and seem to be attracted to certain colors like yellow, orange, white, and silver. Clothing and equipment should be in dull colors.

•             Remove anything speared while fishing out of the water as soon as possible. A fish that’s speared bleeds and struggles, both of which attract sharks.

•             Avoid splashing the surface while swimming; swim smoothly in the water. Thrashing around may make you appear like a fish or seal in trouble and gain a shark’s unwanted attention.

•             Stay out of the water at night, dusk, or dawn when sharks actively hunt.

•             Swim in groups if possible.


Sharks can injure you without biting. Shark skin is as abrasive as sandpaper. They often bump potential prey to investigate before deciding to attack. Blood from abraded skin can make them more aggressive as a result. As such, you should make sure to keep your clothing on when in the water, including shoes.

It’s not a good idea to let a shark out of your sight. Sharks like to ambush from below or behind, so make every effort to know its location at all times. If you are in the water with other swimmers, form a circle facing outward to better defend yourselves.

If a shark approaches, slap the water with cupped hands or shout underwater. Otherwise, try to kick or punch it, especially in sensitive areas like the “snout,” eyes, and gills. These strategies might deter a shark that’s just curious. Some sharks adopt a posture that signals an impending attack. A raised snout, lowered fins, and a hump-backed posture is a sign of aggressiveness.

Do not “play dead”; this doesn’t discourage them (they’re not bears). Likewise, swimming as fast you can will only make you appear like a thrashing fish. I don’t care how good a swimmer you are; you can’t outswim a shark. Make slow, smooth strokes and keep the shark in view if possible (sharks like to ambush from below or behind).


In some cases, you may receive an investigatory bump from a shark, which may then just swim away. Other times, the animal will just bite. If the shark realizes you’re not prey material, it will, likely, not pursue the attack. In some cases, however, it will attack again and again. For this reason, some authorities distinguish between “bite incidents” and “attacks.”

Even in deliberate attacks, sharks often bite once and then retreat to wait for the victim to die or weaken from shock and blood loss. This is protective to the shark, to avoid injury from a desperate victim. For humans, however, it allows some time to possibly save a life.

If a person has been bitten, it’s important to try to get the victim out of the water immediately. Even a solitary bite can cause bleeding that is often life-threatening, with removal of soft tissue (avulsions) or even amputation of a limb.

Get the victim out of the water and place a tourniquet high and tight

Your priority is to stop the hemorrhage (discussed in detail in many other articles on this site). Don’t try to clean the wound first. Expose the wound if needed, but time’s running out. If it’s obvious where the bleeding is, don’t even wait to cut away clothing.

Lay the victim down and apply firm, direct pressure using overlapped hands and your full body weight. If you have dressings, use them between your hands and the wound as a barrier. Employ the tourniquet in your medical kit or improvise one. This should be the first course of action in any serious bleed. Place it “high and tight” on the extremity.

Cover the patient: they’ll be in shock and lose body heat quickly. If the bleeding is from an extremity, elevate it above the level of the heart. Once the bleeding is under control, apply a compression bandage. In survival settings, take the victim to a more controlled environment where the bulk of your supplies are. Of course, in normal times, call emergency services immediately.

Shark attacks may be the most sensational eye-popping item in the news, but many more beach-goers will incur stings from rays and jellyfish. What do you do when confronted with them? Find out in my next article…

Joe Alton MD

Dr. Alton and friend

Find out more about animal encounters, survival at sea, and 200 other medical topics off the grid in the Book Excellence Award winner in Medicine, The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide For When Help Is NOT On The Way. Plus, check out quality medical kits for beach outing and other scenarios at

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