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Why Sharks Attack and How to Keep Safe If You Spot One


By Michele C. Hollow of Pet News and Views

Shark sightings make most of us tremble with fear. However, Marie Levine, executive director of The Shark Research Institute, finds encounters thrilling.

Levine has been observing sharks for 40-plus years—many times her encounters have been up close—and she has never been attacked. “There are so few fatal attacks,” she explained. “More people are spending time in the water, whether it is swimming, fishing, diving, snorkeling, surfing or boating. Being out in the water increases our likelihood of spotting a shark. Attacks are rare.”

Last year five people in the United States died from shark bites, and between 70 and 100 people were attacked by sharks worldwide.

In New Jersey, sharks seldom bother divers. “Many of our sharks have been overfished,” said Levine. “Sharks prey on skates and rays, which feed on shellfish. By decreasing the shark population, the skates and rays greatly reduced the number of shellfish, which in turn hurt New Jersey fishermen. That’s one reason why we need sharks. We must not mess with Mother Nature.”

About one-third of the more than 400 different species of sharks are endangered. “Why should that matter to us?” she asked. “If we remove sharks from our waters we are tampering with our primary food and air sources. Sharks actually keep our largest ecosystems—our oceans—healthy. Removing sharks can cause disastrous effects including the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs.”

“People are afraid of sharks because they don’t know them, and we are often afraid of things we don’t understand,” said Levine. “It’s important to read about sharks and other sea creatures before you dive or spend time in the water.”

“Peter Benchley, who wrote “Jaws,” became one of our major supporters,” she continued. “He used to say, ‘Don’t people realize the book is in the fiction section of the bookstore?’”

If you do spot a shark up close, Levine recommends staying as calm as possible. “Sure your adrenaline is pumping,” she said. “Sharks are curious and may come close just to check you out.”

Splashing won’t do much. When sharks spot a person splashing in the water, they may think they’re seeing a sea lion, seal, small fish or other marine mammals, which they prefer to eat. They will attack if they feel threatened or are defending their territory.

So in addition to keeping calm, if you spot a shark in the distance and are close to your boat or to land, you can swim to safety. If you are several feet away from your boat or land, you won’t be able to out swim a shark. Your best bet is to stay still and keep your eyes fixed on the shark. On the few occasions when sharks have attacked, they often have done so from behind.

The best safety advice is to avoid encounters by swimming where there are other people. Never wander far away from the crowds and don’t wear shiny jewelry in the water. Shiny jewelry mimics fish scales and labels you shark bait. Also, stay out of the water during early morning, late afternoon and at night; that’s when sharks tend to eat.

Swim where a lifeguard can spot you. And if you are bleeding, stay out of the water. Sharks can smell blood from several feet away.

For more information about sharks, visit The Shark Research Institute.


Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife. She can be reached at Twitter

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