Written by:Alex Smith
Written by Alex Smith and Shannon Quirk
IT’S SHARK WEEK! The television world is dedicating this week to Discovery Channel’s clever way of scaring kooks out of the water… and they begin with the letter “S.” That’s right… this all-too-frightening week of shark bombardment makes it absolutely impossible to pretend like we’re alone in the lineup, but we’re not just here to torture you; the best way to deal with a shark encounter is to educate yourself. These hungry predators are fascinating creatures, and the more you learn about them, the clearer it becomes that humans are endangering them at a much faster pace.
What should you do in the unlikely event of a shark encounter? The Surf Channel is here to help keep you safe in the water, if you happen to run into one. Many surfers live their entire lives without meeting these interesting animals — or maybe they just purposefully keep their eyes closed underwater. However, in the event of an attack, the most common recommendation from shark experts is to capitalize on your survival instincts and try to hit the shark hard on the nose. This may be the only time to be envious of a stand-up paddler, since a sharp paddle could be used as a useful defense mechanism. Other tips of how to prevent a shark attack, include:
1. Invite the shark out to dinner first to satisfy her appetite.
2. Give up night surfing, when sharks are feeding.
3. Cover up shiny objects that may appear like fish scales in the sun.
4. Invest in shark-repellent, AKA your grandmother’s nasty perfume.
5. Brightly colored wetsuits: take notes from Matt Wilko – would you screw with the green joker?
6. Never provoke a shark; they are not second graders taking a picture before their first day of school.
7. Let go of your seal lion friends; hanging with those guys will get you into trouble.
8. Take a lay day if you have an open wound. That stench is dangerous to the rest of us.
9. Take the first wave in after a shark sighting. If you fall, it’s your own fault for not surfing enough.
10. Surf with a buddy – maybe he’ll get taken out first.
Jokes aside, most sharks are harmless, and educating yourself will calm your worries when paddling out. There are over 400 characterized species of sharks in the world. It is important to know the specifics of each type of shark so you can adjust your reaction to them accordingly. Below, you will find a list compiling information on the most commonly spotted species of shark in coastal waters.
1. Leopard Sharks
Leopard sharks have a relatively narrow range, found in the Eastern Pacific Ocean from Oregon to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Large populations occur in San Francisco Bay, and other large estuaries.
The leopard shark has a relatively broad and short snout. The prominent rounded dorsal fin of this shark originates over the inner margins of its pectoral fins. The leopard shark is conspicuously covered with dark saddles and splotches. The dorsal surface of the animal varies in coloration from silver to a bronzed gray. The ventral surface of the animal is lighter and sometimes white.
Leopard sharks can reach lengths of up to 7 feet (2.13 meters), but it is rare to find an individual larger than 6 feet (1.83 meters). The average size of an adult leopard shark is between 50 and 60 inches (120cm to 150 cm). They feed primarily on benthic invertebrates and small fish. They poses virtually no danger to humans. The International Shark Attack File has a single report of an incident involving a human and a leopard shark. This incident did not reportedly cause any significant damage to the victim, and no bite was involved.
2. Tiger Sharks
The tiger shark is found throughout the world’s temperate and tropical waters, with the exception of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a wide-ranging species that is at home both in the open ocean as well as shallow coastal waters. Reports of individuals from as far north as Iceland and the United Kingdom have been confirmed. This shark has a notable tolerance for many different kinds of marine habitat but generally prefers murky waters in coastal areas. It is commonly found in river estuaries, harbors, and other inlets where runoff from the land may attract a high number of prey items. Shallow areas around large island chains and oceanic islands including lagoons, are also part of the tiger shark’s natural environment.
The tiger gets its name from dark black spots and vertical bars which run the length of the body.Bluish-green to dark gray or black dorsal surface with a yellowish-white to stark white underbelly. The characteristic dark spots and stripes are most prominent in young sharks and fade as the shark matures. One of the largest sharks, the tiger shark commonly reaches a length of 325-425 cm (10-14 ft) and weighs over 385-635 kg (850-1400 lbs).
Preferred prey varies depending upon geographical region but commonly includes sea turtles, rays, other sharks, bony fishes, sea birds, dolphins, squid, various crustaceans and carrion. The tiger shark’s highly serrated teeth combined with the saw-like action from shaking the head back and forth allows it to tear chunks from much larger marine animals. The tiger shark is second only to the white shark in number of reported attacks on humans. Its large size and voraciousness make it a formidable predator in the ocean. Tiger sharks can be curious and aggressive towards humans in the water and must be considered with a great deal of respect.
3. Lemon Sharks
The lemon shark is commonly found in subtropical shallow water to depths of 300 feet (90 m) and inhabits coral reefs, mangroves, enclosed bays, sounds and river mouths. The lemon shark is a large stocky, blunt nosed shark with two dorsal fins of similar size. The first dorsal fin is low and positioned posterior to the pectoral fins, the second dorsal is of similar shape and size and positioned anterior to the origin of the anal fin. The pelvic fin has weakly concave rear margins and the pectoral fin outer margin is slightly convex and both fins are weakly falcate. The snout is round and shorter than the width of the mouth. There is no mid-dorsal ridge present on this species.
Lemon sharks are one of the larger species of sharks, commonly obtaining lengths between 95-120 inches (240-300 cm). They are commonly found over sandy or muddy bottoms and eats a diet consisting mainly of bony fish and crustaceans.
These sharks represent a small threat to humans. According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been only 10 unprovoked attacks by lemon sharks, all occurring in Florida and the Caribbean. There have been no fatal attacks attributed to this species. The lemon shark does inhabit coastal waters which swimmers, surfers and divers commonly utilize. The low number of attacks by this species indicates that it is a minimal threat to humans.
4. Bull Sharks
Bull sharks swim in tropical to subtropical coastal waters worldwide as well as in numerous river systems and some freshwater lakes. The bull shark prefers to live in shallow coastal waters less than 100 feet deep (30 m), but ranges from 3-450 feet deep (1-150 m). It commonly enters estuaries, bays, harbors, lagoons, and river mouths. It is the only shark species that readily occurs in freshwater, and apparently can spend long periods of time in such environs.
Bull sharks are very robust-bodied and have a blunt, rounded snout. They lack an interdorsal ridge. The first dorsal fin is large and broadly triangular with a pointed apex. The second dorsal fin is significantly smaller. The pectoral fins are also large and angular. Bull sharks have relatively small eyes. Bull sharks are pale to dark gray above, fading to white on their underside. In younger individuals the fins have black tips which fade to a dusky color as they grow. The maximum reported length of the bull shark is 11.5 feet (350 cm), weighing over 500 pounds (230 kg). Size at birth is around 29 inches (75 cm). Females grow larger than males, averaging 7.8 feet (240 cm) as adults, weighing around 285 pounds (130 kg). This is the result of a longer lifespan of about 16 years, compared to 12 years for males. Males average 7.3 feet (225 cm) and weigh 209 pounds (95 kg). Bony fishes and small sharks make up the vast majority of the bull shark’s diet.
They often appear sluggish as they slowly cruise along the bottom, but are quite quick and effective at capturing smaller, agile prey, and are capable of burst speeds of over 11 mph (19 km/h).
According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) bull sharks are historically responsible for at least 69 unprovoked attacks on humans around the world, 17 of which resulted in fatality. In reality this species is likely responsible for many more, and has been considered by many experts to be the most dangerous shark in the world. It’s large size, occurrence in freshwater bodies, and greater abundance in close proximity to numerous human populations in the tropics makes it more of a potential threat than either the white shark or tiger shark.
These are some things that can be done to avoid the chance of an unwanted encounter with a bull shark:
1. Avoid swimming near river mouths or other estuaries with turbid waters where bull sharks are known to occur.
2. Do not swim near schools of fish in inshore areas. These schools are often pursued by large predators.
3. Be cautious if spearfishing. Bull sharks are known to approach spearfishermen carrying their catch.
5. White Shark
The white shark is cosmopolitan but occurs mostly in temperate seas, with large individuals known to penetrate tropical waters. The white shark is principally an epipelagic (living in the upper part of the water column) dweller of neritic (nearshore) waters. However, it ranges from the surfline to well offshore and from the surface and to depths over 250 m (775 ft). This shark commonly patrols small coastal archipelagos inhabited by pinnipeds (seal, sea lions and walruses), offshore reefs, banks and shoals and rocky headlands where deepwater lies close to shore. The white shark usually cruises in a purposeful manner, either just off the bottom or near the surface, but spends very little time at midwater depths.
Body fusiform, snout conical and relatively short, long gill slits not encircling the head. Large first dorsal fin with the origin over pectoral fin inner margins. Second dorsal and anal fins minute. Caudal fin homocercal (crescent shaped), without a secondary keel below extension of caudal keel. Dorsal surface blue-grey to grey-brown, often bronzy. Ventral surface is white. Boundary between these tones is generally abrupt. Small, irregular dark spots may be present on the flanks posterior to the last gill slit. Most specimens exhibit a black oval blotch in the axil of the pectoral fin. Scientists now suggest that the maximum total length of this species is about 680 cm (22.3 ft). Males mature at about 350 cm (10.5 ft) and females at about 450 cm (14 ft).
The white shark is also capable of short, high-speed pursuits and even launching itself clear from the surface. It is a macropredator, known to be active during the daytime. Its most important prey items are marine mammals and fish.
This species of shark has been credited with more fatal attacks on humans than any other species of shark. This is due primarily to its size, power and feeding behavior
6. Sand Sharks
The sand tiger shark can be found in most warm seas throughout the world except for the eastern Pacific. Commonly found inshore ranging in depths from 6 to 626 feet (1.8 to 191 m), the sand tiger shark’s range extends to a variety of areas including the surf zone, shallow bays, coral and rocky reefs and deeper areas around the outer continental shelves.
The sand tiger shark is a large, bulky shark with a flattened conical snout and a long mouth that extends behind the eyes. The first dorsal fin is set back and is much closer to the pelvic fins than the pectoral fins. The anal and dorsal fins are large and broad-based and the second dorsal fin is almost the same size as the first dorsal. Gill slits are anterior to the origin of the pectoral fins in this species.
Average size ranges from four to nine feet with maximum length believed to be around 10.5 feet (320 cm) in females and 9.9 feet (301 cm) in males. The diet of this ravenous feeder mainly consists of a wide variety of small bony fish, lobsters, and smaller sharks.
Underwater observations of this shark reveal that it is not aggressive unless provoked. Its size and jagged teeth demand respect and have given it an undeserved reputation as a maneater in Australia, where it is often confused with other species, mainly requiem sharks. It has been known to attack people when provoked, especially when they are spearfishing. There have been accounts of sandtigers stealing fish off stringers and spears underwater. In total there have been relatively few documented attacks on humans. ISAF records account for only 29 unprovoked attacks with two resulting in fatalities.
7. Spinner Sharks
The spinner shark is found in the western Atlantic from North Carolina (U.S.) to the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Bahamas. This shark has also been reported in waters around Cuba. It also resides from southern Brazil to northern Argentina. In the eastern Atlantic Ocean, it is found from Spain to Namibia, including the southern Mediterranean Sea. In the Indo-West Pacific, the spinner shark is found in the Red Sea, south to South Africa, eastward to Indonesia, northward to Japan, and then south to Australian waters. Distributed from inshore to offshore waters over continental and insular shelves, the spinner shark lives in subtropical regions primarily between 40°N and 40°S. Depth of habitat ranges from 0-328 feet (0-100 m). The spinner shark forms schools and is considered a highly migratory species off the Florida and Louisiana coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico, moving inshore during spring and summer months to reproduce and feed.
The spinner shark is an active, fast swimming shark that is often seen leaping out of the water, spinning (from where it gets its common name), in pursuit of prey. This shark has a slender build with a long, pointed snout and small eyes. The lower jaw has a distinct notch along the trailing edge. The eyes are round and small in size. Spinner sharks reach a maximum total length of 9.8 feet (3 m) and a maximum weight of 198 pounds (89.7 kg). However, the average size of these sharks is about 6.4 feet (1.95 m) and 123 pounds (56 kg). The spinner shark feeds primarily on pelagic fishes. The shark snaps in all directions at the quickly scattering fish, followed by leaping out of the water.
Although the spinner shark is not considered dangerous to humans, it may pose a threat if attracted to divers during spearfishing activities. According to the International Shark Attack File, the spinner shark has been responsible for 13 unprovoked attacks on humans resulting in no fatalities. However, its small, narrow teeth are much more suited to feeding on whole small fishes, not attacking large prey such as marine mammals and humans.
8. Reef Sharks – The Oceanic Whitetips
The oceanic whitetip shark is distributed worldwide in epipelagic tropical and subtropical waters between 20°North and 20°South latitude. Its range includes Maine, U.S. south to Argentina in the western Atlantic Ocean and from Portugal to the Gulf of Guinea and possibly in the Mediterranean in the eastern Atlantic. This shark is usually observed well offshore in deep water areas (0-500 feet (0-152 m)) although on occasion it has been reported in shallower waters near land, usually near oceanic islands.
This stocky shark has a large rounded first dorsal fin and very long and wide paddle-like pectoral fins. The head of this shark includes a short and bluntly rounded nose and small circular eyes that have nictitating membranes. The first dorsal fin is very large with a rounded tip, originating just in front of the free rear tips of the pectoral fins.
Oceanic whitetip sharks grow to large sizes, with some individuals reaching 11-13 feet (3.5-4 m). However, most specimens are less than 10 feet (3 m) in length. The oceanic whitetip shark feeds on bony fishes.
Although primarily found offshore, this shark is considered potentially dangerous. In encounters with divers, ocean whitetip sharks have shown little fear and much persistence investigating and circling the ongoing activities. Due to this shark’s opportunistic feeding habits and strong jaws as well as its boldness and unpredictability around divers, this shark should be treated with extreme caution. Many potential attacks have been averted by quick action on divers’ parts such as bumping the sharks on the snout to avoid close contact.
9. Galapagos Sharks
The Galapagos shark is circumtropical in distribution with a preference for waters surrounding oceanic islands. This shark is quite abundant, found close inshore as well as occasionally reported offshore in waters over continental and insular shelves to depths of 591 feet (180 m). It has a preference for clear tropical waters with strong currents over coral or rocky bottom habitats.
This is a large shark with a slender, fusiform body and low inter-dorsal ridge between the first and second dorsal fins. The tall and nearly straight first dorsal fin originates over the posterior third of the pectoral fin inner margin. The long pelvic fins are straight, each with a pointed tip. The snout of the Galapagos shark is broadly rounded. The Galapagos shark reaches a maximum length of 12.1 feet (3.7 m). Male individuals mature at lengths of 6.9-7.5 feet (2.1-2.3 m) while females mature at 7.2-8.2 feet (2.2-2.5 m) in length. This shark feeds primarily on bottom-dwelling fishes as well as on squid and octopus.
According to the International Shark Attack File, the Galapagos shark has been responsible for one fatal attack on a swimmer in the Virgin Islands. In locations where this shark is abundant, they often are attracted to divers, sometimes even becoming a hindrance. When divers took aggressive actions, these sharks were not deterred but instead became more excited. Prior to attack, the Galapagos shark has been reported to display threat behaviors including arching of the back, raising the head, and lowering the caudal and pectoral fins while swimming in a twisted, rolling motion.
This species is considered potentially dangerous and may attack if a food source is present such as during spearfishing activities. If there are large numbers of Galapagos sharks present, it would be wise to limit one’s activities in the water
10. Hammerhead Sharks
The great hammerhead is found in coastal warm temperate and tropical waters. This large coastal/semi-oceanic shark is found far offshore to depths of 300 m as well as in shallow coastal areas such as over continental shelves and lagoons. The great hammerhead migrates seasonally, moving poleward to cooler waters during the summer months. The dorsal side of the great hammerhead is dark brown to light grey or even olive in color fading to white on the underside. The fins lack markings in adults while the apex of the second dorsal fin may appear dusky in juveniles. In waters off Australia, males reach maturity at a length of 7.4 feet (2.25 m) corresponding to a weight of 113 pounds (51 kg) and females are mature at a total length of 6.9 feet (2.10 m) corresponding to a weight of 90 pounds (41 kg).
Great hammerheads are active predators, preying upon a wide variety of marine organisms, from invertebrates to bony fishes and sharks.
Hammerheads are considered potentially dangerous sharks. According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been 21 unprovoked attacks with 2 resulting in fatalities for all species of the genus Sphyrna. However, few if any attacks can be directly linked with this species due to the difficulty distinguishing species of hammerheads involved in attacks. Due to its large size and variety of prey, this shark should be treated with respect and caution.