The Surprising Reason Why Sharks Attack in Shallow Water

Did you know a cow is five times more likely to kill us than a shark? It’s true, and yet the fear of shark attack is one of the first things that comes to mind when our toes touch the water. We can’t help it — our brains are wired to respond emotionally to irrational thoughts before we take a more realistic approach.

For those that surf or frequent the beach (and even some that don’t), fear of shark attack is real. And although statistics prove it an irrational thought, the chance of a shark attack in shallow water is a lot greater than out in the deep blue sea. In fact, most shark attacks occur a few hundred yards offshore and can even happen in thigh-deep water — no thanks!

How come sharks attack in shallow water? Hint: It’s not because they know humans are swimming nearby.

a shark in the water

Sharks can attack in thigh-high water. | Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Why sharks attack in shallow water

Shallow water seems like a strange place for a shark attack — after all, they sometimes get so close to shore that they can barely move! Nonetheless, it happens. While it’s hard to say for sure why sharks attack in shallow water, some species — such as the bull shark — like to feed in murky, warm, shallow waters. That preference often results in swimmer or surfer encounters. However, tasty human flesh isn’t what causes them to attack.

According to National Geographic, bull sharks are the biggest threat to humans surfing or swimming in shallow water (great whites and tiger sharks are a close second and third). Because they prefer the same swimming conditions as humans (tropical shorelines) and are extremely territorial, they are considered the most dangerous sharks in the world. On top of that, they’ll eat practically anything — including their own kind.

That said, bull sharks don’t want to eat or attack humans. In fact, most bull shark attacks are an accident and usually caused by the shark’s territorial habits. However, some scientists believe the sharks might also get curious, causing them to go after surfers and beach dwellers.

What to do if a shark attacks you

Despite their curiosity and territorial tendencies, very few shark attacks happen each year. In fact, in 2017 there were only 88 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide. Of those attacks only five were fatal. However, those statistics don’t take away from the fear of being attacked by a shark. For those that are afraid of shark attacks or frequent the beach, knowing what to do if a shark attack you can be beneficial in the — very low — chance an attack occurs. Discover tips for how to avoid an attack, plus what to do if a shark attacks, below.

Great white shark

Sharks are more likely to attack solitary individuals. | Peter_Nile/iStock

1. Don’t swim or surf alone

Sharks don’t care about numbers. However, swimming or surfing in pairs could help prevent a fatality. According to the Global Shark Attack File, “sharks may be more likely to bite solitary individuals, and if you are injured there is nobody to help you.”

2. Don’t wear jewelry or bright clothing

Wearing jewelry in the ocean is a no-no — not just because you can easily lose it, but you can draw attention to yourself. If the sun reflects off the jewelry, it could catch a shark’s eye. Also, bright clothing — such as neon-colored swimsuits and swim trunks — should also be avoided, as it can draw attention.

3. Don’t thrash

In addition to what you wear and who you swim with, how you swim is also essential. Experts advise against frantic paddling as the thrashing could be mistaken for a wounded fish — aka, easy prey.

4. Don’t swim at dusk or dawn

For sharks, feeding time is usually in the morning or evenings as water visibility is much lower. Swimming during this time can confuse the sharks and might result in an accidental attack.

5. Stay calm

If a shark approaches you, the best thing to do is stay calm. Since sharks usually aren’t looking to attack on purpose, chances are they are just passing by. Frantically swimming away or flailing around might intrigue the shark and cause it to attack.

6. Fight back

If you are attacked, do your best to fight back. Many shark attack survivors credit punching, kicking, and head-butting for saving their lives.

7. Go for the eyes and gills

If you find yourself face to face with an aggressive shark, go for the eyes and gills. Punching and kicking can help you in your defense, but the eyes and gills are a particularly vulnerable spot for sharks.

8. Never take your eyes off the shark

Sharks have a variety of attack methods — one, in particular, being sneak attacks. If a shark is aggressive, be sure to keep the shark in sight at all times. That can help you stay on guard and avoid any surprise attacks.

9. If possible, use a weapon

Unless you are fishing or paddleboarding, chances are you won’t have anything that can be used as a weapon. However, you can get creative. If possible, pick up a rock and throw it at the shark to scare it off or cause harm.

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