For many of us, a shark attack is our worst nightmare. We’ve read the stories and seen the films, and the prospect of even seeing a shark fin through the water has us running for our towels in less than a second. If we know how to avoid sharks we can put ourselves at less risk and ensure that we are kept at a safe distance from them. Sharks do not hunt humans and are not maliciously inclined towards us, however sharks have been known to mistake swimmers and surfers for prey and depending on the situation may confuse our scents and appearance as something in their diet.
In Cape Town, sirens on beaches alert us when a shark as been spotted entering coastal waters, however how can we avoid sharks without trained spotters to tell us when one is approaching or if and when the waters are dangerous? There are a few simple things we can remember which will ensure our safety when by ourselves in the water. If sharks are known to be present in your local waters, you should religiously follow these guidelines and check each of them before going for a dip.
The Shark’s senses are sound, electric, visual and smell and all three must be considered when in the water. Swimmers, surfers and spear fishermen must stay out of the water if any of these are an issue.
Sharks have been proven not to be stimulated by the smell of Human blood but the smell may just make them curious. Sharks are attracted to blood and the sent from bodily fluids (including urine!) can be traced hundreds of meters away. If you are swimming in shark infested waters, it is likely one may come to investigate and as sharks use their teeth as feelers there’s a fair chance your swim isn’t going to end too well. It is important to remember that sharks don’t enjoy eating humans though, and once realising that you’re not a tasty seal or fish they’ll more than likely leave you alone.
Many sharks have been spotted in fishing harbours which may alarm many but when thinking about it this is where the fishing boats are cleaned and fish are gutted and cleaned. At any time a shark could be attracted into the area due to the smell.
Avoid swimming close to fishing boats as they may be baiting the water for their catch or gutting their catch whilst at sea. Many of the fishing boats around the cape see Great White Sharks on a regular basis. The operators for Great White Shark Cage Diving unlike common perception are miles away from the coastal areas so their activity working with the sharks will not have any impact on swimmers or beaches along the coastline.
Another rule that must be strictly followed is to avoid swimming with fish or seals in the open water. Sharks eat these creatures and they could easily mix you up with one if you are swimming amongst them. If you get in the way the chase is quick and it’s likely they won’t take the time to separate you from their real prey. On the Sardine run this is always an issue to consider as we will be searching for bait balls (Tight group of Sardines swimming in the shape of a ball). The bait balls are the focus for predators and everything from Sharks, Birds, Whales, Dolphins and even Orcas speed in to feed on the sardines. If you are bitten it will be a mistake as the predators are only interested in the sardines in the water.
Stay clear of being in the water when there are large groups of dolphins or seabirds hovering in one area as its likely they’re feeding. Sharks eat the same food as dolphins and large sharks have even been known to even eat small dolphins occasionally Don’t be fooled into thinking that because dolphins are present you will be safe from sharks; sharks don’t hunt dolphins but they may be close bytaking interest in what the dolphins are feeding on.
The sharks can pick up electromagnetic fields from objects and should you be for example, surfing with a video camera strapped to the board then this may interest the shark. The smallest of electric fields may attract and interest sharks. This can be seen daily on the shark cage diving boats as on many days the sharks are attracted to the back of the boats and try to bite the outboard motors. Divers with cameras and strobes also need to be aware of their surroundings as on many occasions a Tiger shark has taken a camera from an unsuspecting diver on a baited dive. One particular client broke all of the rules that he was instructed and refused to let go of the camera when a Tiger Shark grabbed it. He held on and went for a ride, hitting the shark as they both cruised away from the other divers. This was definitely not the wisest move as the shark could have turned and gone for him in self defence. Fortunately after a loud ‘pop’ when the shark crunched through the housing it then released the camera and it dropped to the ocean floor. This is very funny to talk about now but it could have been a completely different story.
Light and visibility is a major factor to consider. Many ‘attacks’ take place where the visibility is low or the light is bad. In Cape Town on any given day you can see surfers still out on their boards as the sun is setting. This is extremely dangerous as the shark’s vision will be poor in this light which may lead to a regretful encounter for both shark and surfer. Along the Natal coastline there are many river estuaries running out into the ocean. The current changes daily and on some days swimming areas may be clouded with silt and debris from the rivers. No one should even consider swimming in these waters as the coastline is populated with Bull sharks that feed on the outflow of rivers and even swim up the rivers to feed. Bull sharks have a bad reputation because of this but is it really their fault if a surfer or swimmer is in their feeding territory and they cannot even make out what the object is? In Protea banks divers are in the water daily interacting with the bull sharks and to date there have not been any ‘attacks’ on divers on baited dives where the visibility is good. Surfers should always bear in mind that the Great White Sharks are in the surf line during the summer months. Seal / turtle shaped objects moving fast in the noisy churning frothy water can easily be mistaken for prey.
Spear fishing is always a risk with sharks and predators. In the cape waters there have been numerous attacks and close encounters with spear fishermen and Great White Sharks. When the fish is struck it panics and flaps around and this with the combination of blood in the water alerts the sharks. The most dangerous time when spear fishing is when the fish is on the spear, even if the fish is dead on the spear sharks may have picked up on the stress of the fish.
Despite popular belief, sharks don’t hunt or want to eat humans. However by being in the wrong place at the wrong time humans can be mistaken for prey or something they would eat. By following the above mentioned guidelines you can dramatically reduce the chances of an encounter with a shark and ensure safe swims. Although these creatures have no malicious intention toward us, it’s better to be safer than sorry when it comes to swimming in the same waters as these awesome predators.