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 Tragedy

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I don’t have the complete details, but from what I know about sharks, it was bound to happen. An Austrian diver in the presence of intentionally attracted (with bait to feed) sharks was bitten by a bull shark and bled to death in Bahamian waters. Of course, our hearts go out to the victim, family, and friends. I also feel badly for the proprietor of this adventure, who certainly would never have intended for something like this to happen. No doubt, there will be finger pointing, recrimination, incredible remorse, and possible litigation.

Shark attraction and feeding for the benefit of viewing diver audiences have been going on for decades. The only safe way to do this is to have the divers observe the animals from within the confines of impenetrable (to sharks) cages, not in open water. The owners of the businesses that promote shark diving wouldn’t have been providing this service if they thought it was exceedingly dangerous. But as we all observed with the tragic stingray puncture to Steve Irwin’s heart, undersea creatures are often swift, strong, wild and above all, unpredictable, animals. Sharks should should never be considered domesticated or safe because they have been in the presence of humans. Their fight, flight, and other defensive mechanisms are guided by primitive and highly conditioned responses intended to promote their survival. They are, plain and simple, predators. When they are feeding, they are considered to be more prone to bite humans. Standard shark avoidance advice is to stay away from sharks during intense feeding activities, to avoid being mistaken for intended prey.

Sharks are fast swimmers endowed with remarkable sensory systems, and when they become disturbed, especially in the feeding mode, there is very little that a human can do to evade an attack. The usual admonition is to seek protection from behind and the sides if possible when a shark swims in an “agitated” fashion, which is what you would expect during provoked feeding of a group of sharks attracted by blood and chum in the water.

It is hard to tell what this will mean for guided shark feeding experiences. Given that it appears to be the case that this victim was bitten by a shark that was within a group being fed for show, my future recommendations are set. Although some might argue that it may still be all right to arrange out-of-cage shark feeding experiences with "less dangerous" species, I don't recommend it. Although certain sharks have less propensity to attack humans, these same animals have sharp teeth and are capable of creating severe bite wounds. It is impossible as a doctor who gets consulted about the clinical manifestations of shark attacks to advise it is acceptable for people to intentionally be in open water in the presence of a group or school of feeding sharks, particularly if they exhibit aggressive behavior.

photograph of bull shark by Howard Hall

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About the Author

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

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