How to avoid being eaten by a shark

A Hawaiian's tried-and-true advice for avoiding a shark attack

"Fish are friends, not food." So goes the mantra recited by a handful of sharks in Finding Nemo. Wanting to swear off fish forever, the sharks make a 12-step-like attempt to overcome their natural impulse to predation. "Fish are friends, not food."

My daughter found this scene hilarious. She was raised as a surfer here in Hawaii. She loves sharks. She knows their nature. She is not afraid of them. She and I plunge into the water as often as we can. Sometimes we see sharks; sometimes we don't. But we're never really afraid. And I don't want anyone else to fear them, either.

So, for those out there who fear the ocean because of a culturally incited fear of shark attack, here are a few lessons for overcoming that fear and getting back in the water.

Lesson number one: Sharks really don't want to eat you. Humans are not a natural food source for sharks. Depending on the subtype, they prefer seals, fish, squid, and even plankton. However, since an increasing number of human beings enter the sea every year, shark attacks do happen.

But not that often, which leads us to lesson number two: Chill out, dude.

You are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark. Do you get into your car every day scared to drive to work because there is a good chance you might die on the way? Do you live in daily fear because you are left-handed? Are you afraid to go to bed because you might never wake up?

All of these things are exponentially more likely to kill you than a shark, so weigh the odds accordingly when you approach those frothy waves with trepidation.

However, yes, sometimes humans and sharks do end up in each other's space. And on very rare occasions, sharks will mistake humans for prey (or other objects of interest), and attempt to take a bite.

But this brings me to lesson number three: Just be smart.

Sharks are attracted to things that look like their natural prey. So, if you don't want one of your limbs to be Whitey's next meal, here are some tips:

  • Swim and surf during the day, not at dusk or dawn when fish feed. Predators who prey upon them are also looking for a meal.
  • Avoid areas where seals and other natural shark prey congregate.
  • Stay with other people; sharks (which are naturally shy) are more likely to attack lone individuals.
  • Don't wear shiny jewelry or bright swimsuits that might appear to be fish scales.
  • Be aware that activity which might imitate a prey animal in distress — such as splashing, slapping the water, and screaming — might attract sharks. This includes swimming with your dog or dogs. The erratic swimming motions of canines mimic those of a wounded marine animal.
  • Choose to plunge into clear water, not that which is clouded because of rain, tides, or river-mouths. Sharks love these murky environments, because they are often rich in food sources.

So what should you do if you see a finned friend lurking around?

Lesson number four: Don't freak out.

During my 40-odd years in the water, I've seen a few sharks under and around me. There's nothing quite like looking down and seeing that familiar bullet-shaped body cruising beneath your board or body. It's tempting to start screaming, splashing, and otherwise creating a commotion.


The old Hawaiians I surf with claim that sharks sense fear in the water. There is no research to support this fact, but as a dog enthusiast, I do know that canines can actually smell the fear hormones excreted by humans. It makes sense that sharks, with an equal-or-superior olfactory sense, could do the same.

Instead, consider lesson number five: Be the boss.

Get out of the water if you can. The ocean is, after all, the sharks' home, and if they come sniffing around, it's only polite to leave. However, if you feel a shark approaching with aggressive intent, hold your ground. Face the animal. Sharks are used to feeding on prey that does not fight back. If possible, find a reef wall or vessel or anything else that might prove to guard your back. Contemplate what you might use as a weapon: Your surfboard or boogie board? A rock? Or even your own fists? Yes, it is hard to think about fighting off a creature with such a fearsome reputation, but there are many accounts of humans surviving under such circumstances.

As one who has been given the mano (shark) as an aumakua, or personal guardian, I cannot ask strongly enough that we humans revere and respect — and cease to fear — these magnificent animals. Sharks, as master predators, reflect the overall health of our world's oceans, which account for a significant portion of the Earth's environment. And their numbers are in rapid decline. Many are being fished to extinction simply because parts of their bodies are considered desirable in some international cuisines.

Sharks are friends, not food, and they certainly should not to be feared.


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