Sharks and Shark Etiquette

hammerhead sharkHuman activities threaten deepwater shark species with extinction. Tens of thousands of sharks are harvested in the central and western Pacific each year, with the vast majority taken only for their fins. These are used to make soup at Asian restaurants and the rest of the carcass is dumped back into the sea, a cruel, wasteful practice, which is gradually removing this top predator from the ecosystem. The consequences of these depredations are as yet unknown.

In contrast, the danger from sharks to swimmers has been greatly exaggerated. Of some 300 different species, only 28 are known to have attacked humans. Most dangerous are the white, tiger, and blue sharks. Fortunately, all of these inhabit deep water far from the coasts. An average of 70 to 100 shark attacks a year occur worldwide with 10 fatalities, so considering the number of people who swim in the sea, your chances of being involved are about one in a million. In the South Pacific, shark attacks on snorkelers or scuba divers are extremely rare and the tiny mosquito is a far more dangerous predator.

You’re always safer if you keep your head underwater (with a mask and snorkel), and don’t panic if you see a shark-you might attract it. Even if you do, they’re usually only curious, so keep your eye on the shark and slowly back off. The swimming techniques of humans must seem very clumsy to fish, so it’s not surprising if they want a closer look. Sharks are attracted by shiny objects (a knife or jewelry), bright colors (especially yellow and red), urine, blood, spearfishing, and splashing.

Sharks normally stay outside the reef, but get local advice. White beaches are safer than dark, and clear water safer than murky. Avoid swimming in places where sewage or edible wastes enter the water, or where fish have just been cleaned. You should also exercise care in places where local residents have been fishing with spears or even a hook and line that day.

Never swim alone if you suspect the presence of sharks. If you see one, even a supposedly harmless nurse shark lying on the bottom, get out of the water calmly and quickly, and go elsewhere. Studies indicate that sharks, like most other creatures, have a “personal space” around them that they will defend. Thus an attack could be a shark’s way of warning someone to keep his distance, and it’s a fact that more than half the victims of these incidents are not eaten but merely bitten. Sharks are much less of a problem in the South Pacific than in colder waters, where small marine mammals are commonly hunted by sharks. You won’t be mistaken for a seal or otter here.

Let common sense be your guide, not irrational fear or carelessness. Many scuba divers actually come looking for sharks, and local divemasters seem able to swim among them with impunity. If you’re in the market for some shark action, most dive shops can provide it. Just be aware that getting into the water with feeding sharks always entails some danger. Never snorkel on your own (without the services of an experienced guide) near a spot where shark feeding is practiced as you never know how the sharks will react to a surface swimmer without any food for them. Like all other wild animals, sharks deserve to be approached with respect.