Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Shark Attack

A shark attack occurred on November 11, 2006 in the ocean off the coast of Maui, specifically in Kama’ole Beach Park II in Kihei. Despite the rarity of such attacks, this event attracted the usual amount of media attention and speculation as to causation. It was the fourth attack recorded this year in Hawaii. Although all of the sharks in these attacks were not definitively identified, they are presumed to likely be tiger sharks, which frequent the islands and are known to be man attackers.

As reported in the press, the victim was caught 30 to 40 feet offshore and bitten a single time in a “hit and run” attack. He pushed the shark away while kicking at it, and the animal fortunately left the scene without a visible return visit.

Other types of shark attacks are “bump and run” and “sneak attack.” In the former, the shark bumps up against its victim prior to a bite attempt. It is possible that this represents an attempt by the animal to assess the defensive response of its victim, or perhaps even to wound the victim with a blunt blow and exposure to the abrasive sandpaper-like skin of the shark. The latter refers to attacks where the shark is not seen prior to the attack, most commonly when it approaches the victim from behind or below.

Because I enjoy diving with sharks, I have had many encounters with them underwater, some of them frightening. To emphasize shark attack avoidance recommendation #11 below, I will never forget putting my heart in my throat during a dive in Micronesia, when we were traveling from Truk Lagoon to Ponape. One afternoon, I was photographing schooling dolphins, which were swimming in a vortex underneath me in blue open water. I was alone at the surface, equipped only with mask, fins, and snorkel, because dolphins are usually frightened by the harsh noise generated by breathing through a scuba regulator, and will generally not approach divers underwater. As I looked down through these friendly fish, I was surprised to see a solitary reef shark enter the scene. At first, the denizen swam slowly below the bottom of the school of dolphins, and I thought it was going to pass through them and move away into deeper water. However, it began to swim erratically and to ascend in a circular pattern, in a fashion that indicated agitation and perhaps agression. The dolphins did nothing to impede its approach. I lifted my face out of the water and motioned to a companion nearby, who sat in a small two-person boat 25 yards distant, awaiting my return. He waved back, interpreting my gesture as a greeting. I then shouted loudly and made it clear to him that I needed him to bring the boat - quickly! He arrived at my side at precisely the moment that the shark made a quick move up at me. I pushed my heavy metal camera housing between me and the shark, and somehow launched my body up out of the water and into the boat without ever touching the side of the boat. So much for being protected by Flipper and friends...

So, from personal experience, avoidance of shark attacks is key. The following advice is intended to assist ocean-goers from being bitten by a shark:

  1. Avoid shark-infested water, particularly at dusk and at night
  2. Do not wander too far from shore; heed posted warnings
  3. Do not swim through schools of bait fish
  4. Do not swim with domestic animals in shark waters
  5. Swim in groups; pay attention to your companions
  6. Avoid turbid water, drop-offs, deep channels, and sanitation waste outlets
  7. Do not bleed in the water
  8. Avoid shiny metal adornments and brightly colored swimwear
  9. Do not carry tethered (dead or injured) fish
  10. Be alert for sharks when fish act erratically
  11. Porpoises do not preclude the presence of sharks
  12. Do not tease or corner a shark
  13. Do not panic or splash at the surface

photo by Paul Auerbach

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Tags: Bites & Stings , In the Water

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.