Tips from a shark researcher on how to stay alert in the ocean

2017 has certainly been the year of the shark so far in Southern California. From an attack to daily sightings to feeding frenzies to people giving all kinds of possible reasons for the influx of sharks, it feels like shark mania is on everybody’s minds.

While there is an increased population of juvenile great white sharks, Christopher G. Lowe, PhD, a professor of marine biology at California State University, Long Beach, and director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, has been insisting that we not panic.

Swimming alone isn’t recommended. Photo: Steve Courmanopolous/Unsplash

“The bottom line is we have to reeducate people on how to be predator smart,” Dr. Lowe told GrindTV. “As seals and sea lion populations come back, and as shark populations come back, we need to get people used to knowing how to deal with those animals.”

We simply need to realize that sharks are in the ocean and that they’re always going to be in the ocean; it’s their home. We are the visitors.

Based off the statistics, Lowe has provided some tips for staying alert while in the ocean. There is no guarantee that these tips will necessarily help you avoid a shark encounter, because as Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.”

Keeping your eyes open and staying alert is very important. Photo: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash

Pay attention to the behavior of shark prey

Seals hang out on the beach [or] try to get on people’s surfboards. It may be cute, but that’s a wild animal. So when seals are doing things like that, that should be a cue that there could be a predator around, like a shark. Those are times when people need to be smart.

They need to understand that seals are also prey of sharks, and when they’re acting erratic, we should be taking cues from them.

Learn from the prey

If these guys are acting strange, better take their cue. Photo: Darius K./Unsplash

That may be a time to start pulling your arms and legs up onto your board — maybe start looking for an exit — because those animals are telling us something. If we learn more about why they do what they do, they can actually keep us safer in the water.

In many cases, sharks may accidentally bite people because they confuse them for prey like a seal, which are very good at avoiding sharks if they know the shark is coming.

What to do if you see a shark

A reminder that sharks are, in fact, in the ocean. Photo: Courtesy of Mali Maeder/Pexels

If you see a shark, chances are that’s a cool experience and 9.9999 times out of 10, a shark is just going to swim right by a person. They’re not even going to try to turn around and come back. But if a shark does turn around and come back, what we always tell people is keep your eyes on the shark — always watch the shark.

The reality of it is, the majority of people bitten by a shark never see the shark coming. So if you do see a shark, automatically your odds of being [bitten] go down. But you can keep your odds going down by always watching the shark.

Be vigilant if you see a shark

The idea is, if you see a shark, watch it; turn and follow it with your eyes. If the shark knows the jig is up, it’ll get bored and leave.

Curious behavior vs. aggressive behavior

The other part we try to teach people is how to recognize aggression, because this is a part that is always a challenge. There is a difference between a shark being curious and a shark being aggressive. We typically see that when the sharks get larger, they’ll be curious of people — especially surfboards. They’ll actually come over and — cruising, not fast, nice and slow — get close to the board and then veer off. That isn’t a sign of aggression.

A sign of aggression is when a shark is doing that really rapidly, coming in really quickly. That means it’s time to back off. You always want to keep your eye on the shark and start backing off. You want to move in the opposite direction of where the shark is going.

Stay in groups

If you want to be safe, go to a popular beach. Fewer incidents occur at populated beaches than they do at remote beaches. People are less likely to be bitten if they’re in a group than if they’re by themselves. These are the things we teach people, based on the statistics, not necessarily based on shark behavior.

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