Wilderness Medicine, First Aid, and Outdoor Skills
Shark Attacks

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US Army First Aid Manual
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Appendix A: First Aid Case and Kits, Dressings, and Bandages
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Appendix C: Common Problems/Conditions
Appendix D: Digital Pressure
Appendix E: Decontamination Procedures
Appendix F: Glossary


Fear is one of our greatest driving forces, causing a variety of responses including an attraction to and curiosity about that which has caused us greatest fear. Fear also causes an exaggeration of facts surrounding the situation eliciting a fear response, as at the moment of greatest fear, when one’s heart is beating wildly, it is easy to forget minute details. It amazes me how people in the United States sensationalize incidents that occur. The media are clearly responsible for exaggerating events to a point that increases fear in the general population causing people to act irrationally by preventing them from enjoying the outdoors. People who are fearful of the outdoors then pass these same fears along to their children, creating a new generation of phobic individuals. This cycle is clearly evidenced by the amount of individuals on the Internet searching for information on brown recluse spiders and shark attacks. Although fearful, individuals are attracted to and seek information about their greatest fears. Again, the media have grossly exaggerated the amount of incidents occurring in the outdoors, creating a panic from the East coast to the West.

The Shark Research Institute can be found at www.njscuba.com, and has a database containing more than 2,000 incidents of shark attacks. It is important to note that for each human shark fatality, there are approximately 10 million sharks that are slaughtered for their fins. Shark fins are removed and sold as aphrodisiacs, as well as shark-fin soup, which is very popular in Asia.

There are approximately 375 species of sharks and out of those, 32 are implicated in shark attacks. Statistically speaking, shark attacks and deaths can be similarly compared to the amount of deaths in the United States from poisonous snakes, which is approximately 12/year. There are approximately 6-9 deaths from shark attacks worldwide each year. The most common shark implicated is the Great White shark, followed by the Bull and Tiger shark.

Sharks for the most part feed in two patterns, one is a normal or very laidback pattern, and the very purposeful. The second is a very frenzied attack, when the shark is very excited. This is usually precipitated by blood in the water and/or noise, and sharks exciting each other. Sharks can move very fast in the water using their caudal fin in a direct attack, and have been clocked at approximately 30-40 miles per hour.

In many attacks, there is only one hit, and the shark is then gone. Sharks swallow their food whole, without chewing. In autopsies of sharks and examining the stomach contents, it has been determined in human deaths that sharks dismember the body first, and then engulf parts of it. The vast majority of deaths occur on the water surface, and not below. In most attacks, “bumping” occurs first, which is either hitting a kayak, canoe or surfboard and knocking the person off, followed by attack.

Prevention of Shark Attacks

The following is a list of a few precautions per Dr. Auerbach from his book Wilderness Medicine, followed by Survive Outdoors’ own suggestions.

  1. Avoid shark-infested waters, particularly at dusk and nighttime.
  2. If you notice there are many schools of baitfish, do not enter those waters.
  3. Do not swim with dogs or animals.
  4. Swimmers should remain in groups.
  5. Avoid drop-offs or inlets.
  6. Humans are most often attacked in shallow water, but usually beyond the breaker.
  7. Do not enter the water if you have an open wound.
  8. Women have been strongly advised not to do any diving or snorkeling during their menstruation. However there is no data to support this.

There is minimal evidence that sharks are attracted to light-colored clothing. Flat black is the best to wear. There is minimal evidence to suggest that light-skinned bathers are more apt to be attacked then dark-skinned.

If you are aware of a shark in the water, you should slowly, purposely move towards more shallow water or to the shore. Fast movement is not advised, very similar to bear attacks; however, this author understands how difficult it would be not to react quickly.

If diving in waters with a partner and a shark is sighted, it is advisable to put yourself back to back with your partner, taking your scuba tanks off, having them in front of you and being in a fetal position. It has been recorded that using the tanks to bump the sharks in the nose or head has been helpful in deterring the sharks. You do not want to dangle your fins or legs. Subsequently, the fetal position places your knees up to your chest. This also allows you to float easier. These are only a few ideas for prevention. Again, please see Dr. Auerbach’s book on Wilderness Medicine for further information.



1. Auerbach, Wilderness Medicine
2. Iscan, MY, McCabe, Analysis of Human Remains Recovered from a Shark, Forensic Science, 72:15, 1995.

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