The good news is that it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be bitten by a shark, especially unprovoked. But, hey, if you’re at a beach that is frequented by sharks, it’s good to be on the safe side. We talked to the experts to help us prepare — here’s their advice.
How to Fight and Flee
You’ve probably heard to hit the shark on the nose. But this is only if it’s coming directly at you and hasn’t bitten you yet. If you’re in the process of being bitten, go for the gills and eyes. The nose is just too close to the shark’s jaws to be safe. “If you try to grab its snout or something like that, you’re going to end up hurting yourself,” says Director of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the University of Miami Neil Hammerschlag.
Now that you’re out of the shark’s mouth, your instinct is probably to flee. That isn’t necessarily the best idea, says Hammerschlag. Make sure the shark is gone first. If it’s still there, keep your eyes on it. You can back away slowly, as long as the shark knows you see it. Remember: prey flees.
Of course, if you’re bleeding out, get to shore immediately. Blood loss is “the number one danger” after a bite, says Senior Scientist at the New England Aquarium Nick Whitney, and so the sooner you stop the flow, the better chance you’ll survive.
Know Your Sharks
You may have more time to react to a bite with large sharks such as great white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks. Smaller sharks, like reef sharks, common in Florida, often quickly bite surfers and swim away — like “hit-and-run bites,” says Chris Lowe, director of California State University, Long Beach’s Shark Lab. Although it may not be as big of a bite as a great white, they can still cause tissue damage.
Then there are nurse sharks. Because they feed largely by suction, they latch onto their prey after the bite. “There have been people who have been bitten that have literally gone to the hospital with a nurse shark attached to them,” Lowe says. If bitten, hitting them in the eyes, nose or gills will just make things worse.
Lowe says the best thing to do is go back into the water and let the shark release itself as long as there’s no risk of drowning. Try to relax, Whitney adds. Tell other people in the water to get out so the shark feels it can safely leave. “If there’s a crowd of people around and it feels like it’s in danger, it may hang on for a long time,” he says. Otherwise, it should let go “within a couple of minutes.”
The necessary medical treatment depends on the severity of the shark bite. In general, stop the bleeding, let other beach-goers know what happened, and seek immediate medical treatment, Lowe says. Many surfers use a surf leash as a makeshift tourniquet. Others use clothes or towels to restrict blood flow. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, Lowe says to leave it on, because it can help prevent a bleed out. In the meantime, notify medical professionals, make sure help is on the way, and let them take it from there.