A Few Things to Know in the (Extremely) Rare Event That You Encounter a Shark

The posting of my open water oddities story was eerily prescient of ghoulish and disturbing events that occurred in open waters around the country following its publication. [Editor's note: This article was orginally published in 2001.]

A savage shark attack on an eight-year-old boy in Florida occurred July 6, 2001, and two triathletes in separate states died of mysterious causes during the swim portion of their events the following week.

Time Magazine devoted its cover to The Summer of the Shark in July of 2001. While I certainly hope that such incidents are simply the result of bizarre coincidence, I received mail from readers with a few more horror stories that deserve attention.

In addition, some of you wanted statistics on sharks and advice on taking protective measures should you encounter one. Following the accounts below are a few important tidbits on shark attacks as well as a short list of precautions you can take to protect yourself in the rare (and I stress VERY rare) instance that you should encounter a shark.

Incidentally, I have been competing in shark-friendly waters for years and have only spotted a few harmless sand and nurse sharks in passing. There was one time in Maui that I followed what I think was a tiger shark below me until each of us lost mutual interest in one another and swam off in separate directions. Uneventful to be sure.

Tim Nash, a former lifeguard from Huntington Beach, Calif., writes about an ocean race he never quite completed. Halfway through a run-swim-run biathlon, Tim was in third place when he noticed the first- and second-place competitors had turned around on the run portion of their event and bypassed the swim around the pier.

From the looks of it, they were cheating! However, hearing shotgun fire out toward the open water, Tim learned that a 14-foot hammerhead shark had been spotted on the swim course and that measures were being taken to scare it away, with no success. Like the leaders, Tim opted to bypass the swim portion of the event as well.

Another account details a grisly discovery made by a group of lifeguards during a training exercise. This group was running through a waterway between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. They were running as they were taught, by dragging each foot through the sand to prevent stepping on stingrays that might have settled on the ocean floor due to the day's calm waters.

Suddenly the leaders of the group tripped and fell, only to discover that their dragging efforts had uncovered the remains of a "lost surfer" from a week prior.

While these highly unusual and rare occurrences (shark sightings, tragic drownings) indicate that the ocean poses certain risks, it can be a far less dangerous place to enjoy recreational activities than one might think.

In fact, here are a few statistics from the International Shark Attack File (found at the Florida Museum of Natural History) to put into perspective the rarity of human-vs.-shark encounters.

Statistics:

  • There were only 79 unprovoked shark attacks in the world in 2000.
  • Most shark attacks are from great whites, tiger sharks and bull sharks.
  • From 1876 to 2001, 254 great white attacks have been reported in the world, 67 of which were fatal. That's only two attacks a year, with one fatality every two years (you are more likely to drown in your bathtub).
  • There were 83 tiger shark attacks in the same 125-year period; 29 fatal.
  • There were 69 bull shark attacks since 1876, 17 fatal.

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