In the wake of a fatal shark attack on the Cape, here’s a look at how and why they occur
The news that a 26-year-old Revere man died after being attacked by a shark off Wellfleet has left many wondering if it will ever be safe to return to the water.
There were 88 confirmed reports of unprovoked shark attacks across the world in 2017, according to the International Shark Attack File website. Fifty-three of those attacks occurred in the United States.
Keep in mind, the overall risk of being injured or killed by a shark is low. You’re more likely to get hurt driving to and from the beach, or of being struck by lightning, than being the victim of a shark attack, according to the website.
But the general rule of thumb is, as more people go into the ocean, the incidence of shark attacks is expected to increase.
1. WHO GETS ATTACKED
Sharks don’t mean to bite people. When they do, it’s typically a case of mistaken identity, according to Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“People shouldn’t feel that if they go into the water, a shark is going to hunt them down,” said Naylor. “They don’t prey on humans at all. They prey on seals.”
Out of all the attacks reported last year, surfers and people participating in other board sports (such as boogie boarding or windsurfing) accounted for the most incidents (59 percent). “This group spends a large amount of time in the surf zone, an area commonly frequented by sharks, and may unintentionally attract sharks by splashing, paddling, and wiping out,” according to the International Shark Attack File. To a hungry shark, a human on a board might look similar a seal.
Swimmers and waders accounted for 22 percent of attacks last year, followed by snorkelers/free divers (9 percent); body-surfers and those playing in the wave zone (3 percent); scuba divers (2 percent); and those participating in other shallow water activities (5 percent).
2. WHERE ATTACKS OCCUR
The International Shark Attack File says most attacks occur in nearshore waters, typically inshore of a sandbar, or between sandbars where sharks eat — they can even become trapped there at low tide. Areas with steep drop-offs are also “favorite hangouts for sharks,” the website states.
Avoid murky or low-visibility water, which makes it difficult for you to see sharks (and for sharks to see you’re a human).
White sharks have been known to swim in relatively shallow water, but they prefer to be in deeper water, according to Naylor.
In the case of the fatal shark attack in Wellfleet, Naylor said, “It’s really alarming that this was fairly close in to shore. . . . It’s kind of unusual that this would happen in shallow water.”
Naylor said in recent years there have been more sightings of young sharks, about 10 to 12 feet in length, swimming close to shore. Why are they showing up so close? One reason is because they can. Smaller sharks are physically capable of swimming in shallower water. And if the best feeding grounds are dominated by the larger animals, “the smaller ones may move further afield to see what they find,” Naylor said. “We don’t know that for a fact, but we do see that pattern in predatory animals.”
3. HOW TO SURVIVE A SHARK ENCOUNTER
The best way to survive a shark encounter is to avoid one in the first place.
That means staying away from seals — because that’s what sharks eat. Never swim near seals. Avoid going in the water at dawn or at dusk, because that’s when sharks are known to feed. But you should be careful at all times, because shark attacks can happen any time of day.
Experts recommend swimming close to shore, where your feet can touch the bottom. Don’t swim or kayak alone — always stay in groups (sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual). Keep splashing to a minimum (erratic movements can attract sharks) and avoid wearing shiny jewelry (because the reflected light can resemble fish scales).
Avoid wearing bright-colored clothing, refrain from going into the water if you’re bleeding, and keep your pets out of the water.
4. HOW TO FIGHT OFF A SHARK
What should you do if you see a shark in the water?
“You should very calmly and purposefully beeline toward the shore and get out of the water,” said Naylor.
Try not to panic. Do not splash or thrash around. Just get out as smoothly (and quickly) as possible.
If you see a shark coming at you, strike it in the nose (ideally with a hard object, if you have one. If not, punching or kicking will have to do).
“They have a lot of sensitive nerves there,” said Naylor. “Or try to hit them in the eye, or in the gills, depending on what you can reach.”
If a shark bites you, fighting back is your only option. The International Shark Attack File advises that playing dead does not work.
“Pound the shark in any way possible,” the website states. “Try to claw at the eyes and gill openings, two very sensitive areas.”
That’s what saved Dr. William Lytton when he was attacked while swimming in 8 to 10 feet of water off Longnook Beach in Truro on Aug. 15. Lytton said he struck the shark in the gills when it clamped down on his leg.
“It let go,” said Naylor. “He was very lucky.”
5. MORE ATTACKS ON THE WAY?
Naylor said that people need to be aware and take precautions when they enter the shark’s natural habitat.
“These animals are becoming more abundant, and the probability of this happening is going up,” he said. “This is not going away, so we need to deal with it.”
“The take home message is to really listen the authorities,” he said. “The public needs to listen and pay attention. You can’t like go in like, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ ”