Dorsal fins and toothy grins are invading television sets nationwide during Discovery Channel’s 23rd annual Shark Week. The enduring phenomenon has grown to include late night comedian Craig Ferguson and has even inspired a shark expert date auction. But the marine predators have also made the news of late. Great white sharks have been lurking in the chilly waters off Cape Cod, prompting the closure of South Beach in Chatham, Mass. Meanwhile, a live sand shark briefly washed ashore on the Jersey Shore last Friday, perhaps attempting to get a closer look at Snooki.
Televised gore aside (again, Snooki), how much of a threat do these large fish with a prehistoric pedigree actually pose? Need to Know checked in with two shark experts — George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Erich Ritter, a shark behaviorist whose own unfortunate encounter with a bull shark was featured in the 2005 Shark Week special “Anatomy of a Shark Bite.”
When sharks attack…
Before you boycott the beach, consider this: “The chances to see a shark are absolutely miniscule despite that the shark is the most abundant top predator on our planet over 100 pounds,” Ritter said. So for the average beachgoer, chances of being the victim of a shark attack are extremely small.
According to Burgess, there are about 65 shark attacks and 4 fatalities worldwide. When you consider those statistics in light of the amount of time people spend in the water, “Your odds as an individual of being attacked and dying in the mouth of a shark in any given year are as close to zero as you can get,” he said.
Are sharks a threat to humans?
Sharks have no preference for humans as food since humans are not native to their environment or part of their diet. They don’t think, “Oh, there’s a human, now that’s a prime meal, double cheeseburger type of thing,” said Burgess.
Rather, when sharks bite people, they are more likely trying to identify the foreign object. “Having no hands means that their mouth becomes their major way of grabbing on to something to test something out,” said Burgess.
Although the great white is the most notorious species, thanks to the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws,” and tiger and bull sharks are also known aggressors, the majority of bites in the U.S. come from lesser known varieties such as blacktipped and spinner sharks.
These “ankle biters” don’t make headlines because they’re so small, Ritter said. While a great white shark can grow to 20 feet in length, blacktipped sharks only grow to 8 feet, and spinner sharks to 10 feet.
Injuries from these sharks are “relatively minor,” Burgess said. “While it’s not any fun, more times than not the people end up with just a scar which they can brag about on Friday night at the bar.”
Where are sharks found?
Sharks have been patrolling the oceans for more than 400 million years, and approximately 400 individual species of sharks can be found throughout the world’s oceans. Sharks do the majority of their migration in the summer, with many species moving north along the eastern seaboard as water temperatures rise. White sharks, which generally prefer cooler water, gather around seal colonies.
Shark sightings make headlines in the summer for a simple reason: there are more people in the water.
“Often in New England, sharks are uncommon, so the press up there is relatively unaccustomed to sharks,” said Burgess. “If the same sharks were found off the coast of Florida, it would be a section C two-liner.”
While white sharks are hogging the limelight in Chatham, Burgess noted that the big story in Florida is the relative lack of attacks. Burgess cited six incidents so far this year, compared with 19 last year and 32 in each of the last two years.
Shark safety tips
You can avoid the stealthy fish by following a few simple guidelines.
Burgess recommends that swimmers stay in groups while in the water, since sharks hone in on solitary prey.
He also suggests avoiding areas where people are fishing and where seabirds are diving since sharks are attracted to the erratic movement of struggling fish as well as the bodily fluids they release when hooked.
Ritter warns that bathers should never swim close to the mouth of a river. “When freshwater hits seawater, the plankton always die on both sides. This is an incredible food source that attracts a lot of fish. Visibility drops to zero,” said Ritter.
He further emphasized the importance of swimming in clear water because in murky water, a splashing human can become a prime target for a confused shark.
How to … survive a shark attack
Although your chances of squaring off with an aggressive shark are exceedingly rare, Burgess offered these key tactics to improve your chances of survival.
Get out of the water as quickly and gracefully as possible to avoid attracting their attention further with irregular movement. Though, “If they’ve already zeroed in on you, it’s too late to worry about that,” said Burgess.
“If a shark is coming toward you and he or she hasn’t got you yet, if you can pop them on their nose with whatever you have available, the tip of their nose seems to be a bit sensitive and they’re not used to having something being aggressive toward them,” explained Burgess. Ideally, the shark will veer off.
If you do not manage to deter the shark, Burgess suggests one last retaliation technique.
“If you’re actually under attack, if it’s grabbing you, I suggest you claw at the eyes and the gill openings,” he said. “You certainly want to do whatever you can do to be as aggressive as you can to demonstrate to the shark that you have power.”
Beachgoers in Seaside Heights, N.J., might consider a similar strategy to ward off a new breed of seasonal interlopers – the cast of “Jersey Shore.”