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Swimmers Explain What To Do During A Shark Encounter

Photo shows flesh wounds of Steven Robles after a shark encounter along Manhattan Beach in Southern California.

We asked, “If a shark is seen during a training swim by a pod of swimmers, what do ocean swimmers normally do? What should they do? What is the best advice?

If a pod of swimmers are training together along the coast in close proximity to one another, what should they all do when a shark is sighted: stop or scream or scramble or swim (fast, slowly, calmly together)? In contrast, if the swimmers are swimming in the same general direction, but spread out over a wide area (e.g., over 100 meters apart), what should they do?

What reaction makes sense? What precautions are advisable?

In some channel swims (e.g., Cook Strait), swimmers are given the option to get on the boat for 10 minutes as a standard, acceptable safety precaution. In other channel swims (e.g., Molokai or Maui Channel), swimmers simply carry on as the crew stays alert and the swimmer swims close(r) to the boat.

But what happens – or should happen – during training swims, either solo or in groups, especially when there are no escorts available?

Experienced ocean swimmers explain their advice and reactions regarding real-life shark encounters below:

Lynn Kubasek recalls, “I was a Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguard Captain in the summer of 1975. The thought of sharks didn’t enter into my thought processes at all. I was a pretty mediocre swimmer and I did my first Huntington Beach Pier swim time in 18 minutes – that was the summer of [the movie] JAWS. After I saw that movie, my next pier swim time was 15 minutes. Oh dear…the water is not so clear and the white bubbles emanating off my hands could be the flashing pearly-whites of the man-in-the-grey-suit. Fear is a great motivator.

That movie effected me for many years after, though it did not stop me from enjoying the ocean. I read Devil’s Teeth after our Farallones Relay in 2011 and would still do it again. We are not on the menu. I like to think that Patchouli and Lavender and bikinis are a shark deterrent as well. It has worked so far. [Sharks are] fish-eaters. Don’t worry about it.

Carol Hayden agrees, “Sharks are everywhere all of the time. I have seen many. I never am scared, just watchful for behavior. Don’t worry. They are not interested in you.”

Cherie Edborg recalls her experience, “I saw one juvenile [shark] one time and it was gone before I could put my head back into the water after telling Patsee and Marc something was down there. Then I proceeded to swim as fast as I possibly could to shore. Lisa saw one a couple weeks before that and she grouped up with her boyfriend amd swam into shore.

I honestly cant say I would know what I would do if there was a real threat. Swimming Shaws is a little more complicated because we aren’t swimming just along the shoreline. I would like to think I wouldn’t be freaked out enough that I would be able to attempt to warn anyone near me and then swim to the safest spot into shore.”

Scott Zornig talks of studies conducted in Australia and the Discovery Channel. “The Discovery Channel stuffed some dummies with chum and put one dummy in black and the other one in something flesh colored. They actually installed robotics in the dummy so they actually moved like a swimmer. The shark went after the black wetsuit each time. The studies done in Australia are yielding similar results.

Look at all the attacks which have taken place in California. I think with the exception of Steven Robles, almost every swimmer was wearing a black wetsuit. Steve’s attack has to be completely discounted because of the illegal provoking of the shark. I am not saying that sharks don’t attack people without wetsuits because they do, it is just mistaken identity in these cases (i.e., surf, cloudy water, etc.).

The bottom line is that swimmers should distance themselves from seals in both proximity and attire. A swimmer should not swim alone either. My guess is that a person can go in to a case of shock even with the minor attacks and your swim pal could be the difference between life and death.”

Julian Rusinek chips in his own personal experiences, “A few years ago I was night swimming around Pismo Beach [California] and was confronted with a very large shark fin silhouette against the moon a few yards away. I was a good 500 yards offshore and knew if I sounded like a panicked seal I would be attacked so I calmly, (but quickly), swam to shore.

Speaking to shark experts over the years, they have come to realize that sharks do scavenge the ocean seeking out easy prey. Injured fish or dead whale carcasses seem to be first on the menu. Studies on swimmers that wear fins give off the “injured fish” sounds that do attract sharks.

The ORCA system [Ocean Recreation Comfort Apparatus] seems to be the new product out there that may be the answer, along with the anti-shark patterned swim suit. This duo is probably the best shark deterrent if you train in shark populated waters.”

Scott Zornig agrees, “I ordered an [ORCA] not because I am scared of sharks. The white noise is soothing and actually helps me sleep. Right, I am terrified of sharks and would have ordered one for each limb, but the makers told me 1 unit covers the same 130′ distance that 4 would. They said I would be wasting my money if I bought 4.

Nan Kappeler, a former competitive swimmer, triathlete and lifeguard, recalls a story she wrote on shark attacks. “The Shark Research Committee, a non-profit scientific research group who documents shark attacks on the Pacific Coast of North America reports only six swimming fatalities since 1952 along the entire coastline of California. But suddenly, the possibility of a shark lurking in the waters near us—is very real.

California State University Long Beach marine biology professor and shark specialist Dr. Chris Lowe said he was surprised to hear of the recent shark attack, especially one that resulted in a fatality. “Humans are not the number one item on a sharks menu and generally don’t come close to shore,” said Lowe. But coupled with the increase of people in the water, and sharks being found closer to shore, Lowe predicts we will see more shark attacks.

Even though many theories exist as to why sharks attack people, Lowe said we really don’t know the answer. “Mistaken id is one theory, but this probably isn’t the only reason for an attack. Why would a shark expend the energy to bite and not come back?” he said. “They may think of us as food, but some may be biting for defensive reasons. We may be invading their territory. The fact is, we really don’t know what a shark is thinking.”

The experts do know that sharks see very well, and see colors, but also depend on other senses such as smell and vibration. “We don’t know how well a shark can see in the marine environment, where the conditions can change quickly from clear to cloudy.” And the chances of a shark mistaking a swimmer in a wetsuit for a seal? “Very little,” said Lowe. “We have no evidence to support the theory that more people wearing wetsuits get bit. People in Florida getting bit aren’t wearing wetsuits.”

Rusinek hints at the old open water swimming mantra, Expect the Unexpected, “We all think about a shark coming up behind us and picking off a leg or two. Its just natural. Kind of like being alone in the carpool lane and waiting for a Highway Patrol officer to catch you. It might just happen.”

Thomas Hale has a similar perspective, “An old business colleague of mine flew a jet in the Vietnam War. To deal with the threat of death from being shot down, he just subscribed to the Golden BB Theory when its time, there is nothing in the world that will stop it from happening. If it is not your time, not a thing in the world can hurt you. That one Golden BB is all you have to watch out for and it’s said you will never even see it coming if it is, so go like Hell in the meantime.”

Linda Kaiser from Hawaii who has seen numerous sharks in her time in the ocean says, “Just because a shark is seen does not mean it will bite. Sharks are curious and will want to check out what is in their territory. Most times, they will circle and then leave. Seeing a shark is a privilege and rare. Face the shark. If it does become aggressive, charge it and never swim in the open water alone.”

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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