By Vicky Anscombe on 12 August 2015

The following situation will be familiar to anyone with an over-active imagination.

You've swum a fair way from the beach; the sea is cool and deep, you're enjoying the waves and the sounds from the shore. Maybe a ham and cheese toastie is on the cards for lunch. Hang on - what just brushed your foot? Is that a fin, gliding towards you, or just the crest of a wave? Panicked, you swim inland, vowing to avoid the sea for the next day or so.

Many of us fear sharks, especially while we're swimming in the sea on holiday, but our fears are quite unjustified. According to The Wildlife Museum, the odds of getting attacked and killed by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067. Put simply, you're more likely to die from getting hit by a firework, drowning, being in a car accident or heart disease.

We've spoken to Paul Cox, Managing Director of The Shark Trust and Brendon Sing from Shark Guardian about our deep-sea fears - and why sharks aren't the enemy.

Why do you think tourists fear sharks so much – is it films like Jaws, or the media coverage whenever a swimmer or surfer is attacked?

Paul: I think there are a number of contributing factors that feed into our fear of sharks. Firstly, it is perfectly natural to be wary of a potential predator, particularly in an unfamiliar environment – we forget sometimes that we are animals and evolved with mechanisms to protect ourselves. Fear is a vital part of this as it fuels our fight or flight response.

However, our fear is primed by information that we encounter, as well as our experiences, and the media and movie industries have been very successful by feeding on our in-built fear to sell newspapers and films. This creates a self-perpetuating spiral of fear and hysteria that leaves tourists uncertain and nervous, and unable to assess the genuine risk.

Brendon: Sharks are one of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet; certainly, movies like Jaws have not helped. Even recent programmes shown by The Discovery Channel still use the 'fear factor' to attract viewers by using certain words and phrases. Unfortunately, this is what tourists are exposed to and gives them a fear of sharks. This is only heightened by shark encounters.

Should surfer Mick Fanning have hit the shark which recently attacked him during a surfing competition?

Brendon: I think Mick Fanning was doing everything he could under an understandably stressful situation to keep a distance between the shark and himself. Even though he hit the shark on the back, I am certain that the shark was not harmed in any way, and if anything, Mick was letting the shark know that he was not a seal - or a suitable snack.

Realistically, what are the chances of being involved in a shark attack?

Paul: Sharks almost never 'attack' but there are occasions when they bite humans, and this can obviously have tragic consequences. The number of biting incidents are usually less than 100 per year so, statistically, the chances of it happening to you are very, very small.

As with all risks in life, the best bet is to understand the risk and how you can minimise it. The recent incident with Mick Fanning makes a very important point that the sensationalist press largely failed to recognise. Firstly, he had a very close encounter with a shark and there was no hint of the shark attempting to bite him. Secondly, and more importantly, this is a man that has spent most of his life in the waters off the Australian coast, sharing the environment with sharks, and this was the very first time he’d encountered one in this way.

Brendon: The chances of meeting a shark depends on what you're up to. Will you be swimming, surfing or diving in a prime hunting ground for sharks for their natural prey, or in an area where oceans meet rivers or deltas? Will you be in the water as night falls or early in the morning? Will you be spear fishing or catching fish that would attract sharks to your location?

These are some of the basic 'rules' that people need to be aware of to reduce shark attacks. Even so, the chances of being attacked by a sharks is very rare. An average of six people are killed by sharks every year. If sharks actually liked to eat people, there would be hundreds of fatalities every year, considering how many people spend time on the ocean.

Some parts of the world have higher shark populations than others. Where are these places?

Brendon: With a few exceptions, most sharks seem to inhabit tropical oceans where their food sources are plentiful. These would include areas above and below the equator, before the oceans get too cold. But there are also sharks that also thrive in cooler waters. Essentially, we have sharks in every part of the ocean, even in the Arctic.

Paul: Sharks are found in almost every ocean and sea on the planet, and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes; a very small proportion are those sharks which people associate with bites. Most sharks will never be apparent to people in the water. The White Shark is the species which gets the most media attention for biting incidents, and there are known areas where they are more commonly sighted. The east coast of Australia, South Africa and the east coast of the United States are where you're likely to find them.

What have these countries done to protect tourists in the water?

Paul: One of the positive side-effects of the media interest in sharks is that there is pretty high awareness of where they can be encountered, and many local authorities will provide support and information where it is deemed relevant. In some parts of the world there are shark detection systems, shark nets and other protective measures. However, I would always advise any tourist to speak to people locally to find out if there are any risks and, if so, what precautions they might need to take.

Brendon: There is work being done to raise public awareness of sharks. Signs warning of recent shark sightings near popular swimming beaches, patrol boats and helicopter shark spotting are also used to help warn lifeguards and beachgoers. The South African Natal Sharks Board has also developed Shark Pods that repel sharks from divers or surfers. These devices use electromagnetic fields to deter sharks, without hurting them.

Shark with a diver

What can swimmers do to keep safe when there’s a chance that sharks could be nearby?

Brendon: Before entering the water, check for any signs of recent shark sightings with the local authorities and coastguards. Learn more about sharks and the 'rules' that I mentioned above before swimming in certain areas. It's unlikely, but if you're in the water and a shark approaches, keep calm and don’t panic. You can either stay where you are and keep an eye on the shark or slowly start swimming back to shore.

Paul: Firstly, always seek advice from lifeguards or local expertise. Most shark bites occur in coastal areas – in shallow, murky waters where sharks hunt, such as river mouths and off beaches, as well as in places where the seabed drops away into deeper water. Avoid areas where baitfish are congregating and stay out of areas where people are fishing or spearfishing. Also, avoid swimming at dusk and dawn when many sharks are more active.

Be shark aware, look at the conditions, follow the advice of lifeguards and don’t assume that it’s always alright to play in the sea. The sea is a natural environment that is, thankfully, still wild, and animals don’t recognise the artificial boundaries that we set. Sharks have an absolute right to be in the water and to carry out their natural behaviour. If we step into their world we have to be aware of the space we share. We've got some further reading for nervous swimmers here

Why do sharks attack humans – are they vicious, or are they just curious?

Brendon: Sharks do not intentionally attack humans, or do so viciously. As mentioned before, we are not part of their natural prey or diet. Sharks are curious creatures. A shark thinks it’s simply investigating another seal, turtle or ray; they take an exploratory nip - and discover it's not what they were after, and swim away.

Over 90% of people survive shark attacks when the shark realises its error, as they rarely continue after that initial test bite. However, on very rare occasions that initial bite can be severe enough to cause a fatality. Many shark attacks also happen from what we call 'provoked attacks'. This is when humans are either feeding, fishing or harassing sharks in or even out of the water.

Paul: They are predators. They are wild animals; and there are only a few records of sharks attacking humans in a premeditated way. It is generally considered that shark bites are a result of misadventure, or in defence. They are curious, but they are also well-equipped, so an exploratory bite from a shark means a lot more to a thin-skinned human.

Sharks with fish

What advice would you give to someone whose fear of sharks is preventing them having fun on holiday?

Paul: I would say learn more about sharks, discover their diversity, learn about their behaviour and put yourself in a better position to understand what they are about. There are many, many people that will actually seek out sharks on their holidays, appreciating their beauty and using local expertise to have a safe and inspiring encounter with a shark.

Brendon: Learn more about sharks from the experts, and certainly not from films! Read research written by professionals working with sharks. The more you learn about sharks, the less you will fear them and the more you will respect them.

Some videos of sharks show them being petted like dogs. What’s happening here? Are sharks friendly and sociable at heart? Are they misunderstood?

Brendon: As a shark and marine conservationist  I always object to people touching marine life, including sharks. There are cases when sharks have brushed against divers; sharks sometimes do this against sand or other objects when they are trying to dislodge a tooth or remove parasites from their skin. The only time sharks should be handled by humans is for research or rescue purposes. Otherwise, touching sharks can be very stressful for the animal and can do more harm than good.

Paul: Sharks are almost certainly misunderstood, but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call them friendly. People who work closely with sharks sometimes develop techniques for handling sharks and individual sharks may respond well. There are ways of using the shark’s extraordinary senses to put them in a 'trance-like' state by handling around the snout. However, my feeling is that sharks are wild animals and while I am very keen to urge people to respect them and love them for what they are, I would always urge people not to treat them or view them as pets.

Shark being petted

If someone should come across a shark while they’re diving or swimming, how should they behave?

Brendon: Firstly, you must understand what an incredible opportunity you have at that moment. It is an absolute privilege to dive and see a shark; a species that has been around for over 400 million years. Most sharks we see today have not changed much over the past 140 million years! So to enjoy this encounter for s long as possible, keep calm, breathe slowly and deeply, restrict arm and leg movement and enjoy the experience. As soon as you start swimming towards the shark, it will consider you a threat and will swim away from you.

Paul: Be calm, keep eye contact and let the shark move away as you retreat slowly from the water. Only in the unlikely event that a shark makes a move towards you should you fend it off, by aiming a blow at its gills or eyes.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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