Ask a Scientist: What to do around sharks


While sharing space with sharks can be dreadful for some, it is a once in a lifetime experience for others. And indeed, just as swimming with dolphins, encountering sharks in their natural habitat can be found on many people’s bucket lists these days. Popular are shark cage experiences where divers and snorkellers are finding protection of a solid cage which makes sense when we seek the company of middle- or large-sized predatory species such as great whites. Here, the actual risk is very low compared to open-water encounters without any protective gear but still keeps your heart going at a high rate when you see a shark for the first time.

However, more people become interested in more natural encounters with predatory species that are potentially dangerous to humans and here it is crucial to know how to behave when you find yourself close to sharks.

In general, it is advised to make such trips with experienced folks. People who can tell sharks apart and who know about their different characters (yes, each shark, just like us, comes with a distinct personality!). Before any encounter, shark guides should also be able to tell you about a code of conduct which wildlife professionals provide for any wildlife species we come in close contact with (or at least, which they should!). If it happens that you meet a shark and you haven’t asked for this because you were on your surfboard or swimming to practice for a Triathlon, knowing what to do doesn’t hurt either.

I’ll share a compact to-do list with you which will make your shark encounter safer and more enjoyable:


1.) Stay calm

Now, this can be a challenging one because our instincts are telling us to freak out. However, it may help to know that sharks are naturally curious animals and are likely to just wanting to say ‘hi’. Especially when you find the shark appearing to be calm by showing slow movements and looking overall relaxed. For shark encounters, it is important to read the animal’s body language to see whether it is aggressive or just curious. Angry or defensive sharks are generally fast-moving with abrupt turns and display a non-linear posture in which you can see their pectoral fins pointing downward. If a shark decides to come at you, the best way to fend it off, according to experts, is to aim for their eyes and their nose, because those are very sensitive body parts and chances are pretty good it’ll leave you alone.

You should also refrain from splashing around because this is what catches a shark’s attention and it is likely that’ll get a little amped by this. Out-swimming a shark is quite impossible too, so here you should prepare yourself to get into ‘fight mode’.


[nbsp]2.) Be aware

In times of 24/7 smartphone use, mindfulness is something that many of us have to gain back again. In shark encounters, being aware is vital! Many victims of shark attacks didn’t see it coming because as predators, sharks rely on ambushing. They sneak up on you to make a bold move. And that’s pretty easy for them when you’re distracted by gear or handling your photo equipment. So the best way to prevent sharks from becoming cheeky is to face them and to let them know that you see them. Here I need to state that generally, we’re not seen as a menu item. As mentioned before, sharks are curious beings and may want to explore you further which they, unfortunately, do with their jaws. And that’s where it becomes life-threatening. So making yourself present will result in a less brave shark because you could be a potential threat to them as well!


3.) Look but don’t touch

This is a quite easy rule to follow, yet it can be hard when you see all the content on social media with people, inexperienced and professional folks, who don’t stick to this. Sharks are wild and potentially dangerous animals and should be treated as such. Our extremities are most vulnerable in human-shark encounters and therefore, reaching out to pet a shark doesn’t seem to be the brightest idea. There is one (and only one!) exception to the rule which includes the redirection of a shark. When sharks are getting too close for comfort, you may need to alter their direction of travel to maintain a safe distance to the animal. For this, you touch the head area of the shark and push the shark into the opposite direction. As mentioned earlier, the head is a sensitive part and sharks actually respond to this pretty well. We all need personal space and sharks need to be reminded from time to time. Having said that, this of course also applies to sharks, so don’t reach out to pet them because you want to make a ‘connection’. It puts you in unnecessary danger, may stress out the animal or you may even transmit diseases or vice versa.

Seeing sharks in their natural habitat is a privilege. They are important indicators of how the marine ecosystem is doing (you should be afraid if you don’t see any of them!) and are beautiful, intelligent and attractive animals. Slowly but steadily we change our minds on these terrific beings and maybe the first thing that will come to your mind when seeing a shark is not “oh shit!” but rather “oh, shark!”.