What to do if you see a shark in the water

One of the great whites spotted off the coast of the Cape Thursday.
One of the great whites spotted off the coast of the Cape Thursday. –Photo courtesy of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Humans aren’t the only ones around here spending their long weekends on the Cape. On Thursday, researchers spotted 17 great white sharks off the coast of Chatham, making it the most popular shark-sighting day in 2015.

The sightings didn’t happen near a swimming beach, but Cynthia Wigren, president of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, told Boston.com that doesn’t mean sharks aren’t passing through.

We’ve seen a lot of sharks in the news this summer. This year, eight people have been attacked by sharks off the coast of North Carolina this year, which is a record according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File. And, it’s hard to forget how surfer Mick Fanning escaped a shark attack about a month ago.


The good news is, the odds of getting attacked by a shark are remarkably low. You’re more likely to get attacked by an alligator or collapse into a sandhole than get attacked by a shark.

Still, you don’t want to be the first death in nearly 80 years. Simon Thorrold, senior biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said it’s better to focus on preventative measures than what happens if you actually encounter a shark because those instances are so rare.

Whether or not you see one (or 17) dorsal fins popping out of the water on your next beach trip, here are some water safety tips:

1. Minimize your risk

Moonlight swims might sound romantic, but the hours from sundown to sun up are when sharks are most active. Thorrold also said to stay in groups and to avoid swimming past breakers. It all sounds like common sense, but he said most people who do get attacked haven’t followed general safety precautions.

2. If you do see a shark, don’t freak out

Easier said than done, right? When your fight or flight (or swim), response kicks in, your first instinct might be to get out of the water as quickly as possible. But the best thing to do is leave the water calmly, said Greg Skomal, a biologist for the Division of Marine Fisheries. Thrashing and splashing only draws more attention to you.


3. Tell, or signal, a lifeguard

If your beach is manned by lifeguards, let them know. Once lifeguards confirm the sighting, they might decide to close the beach until the sharks move on.

4. If, on the rare chance a shark does bite you, don’t play dead

The shark will just finish you off. The best thing to do is fight back. Legend has it that punching a shark in the nose is the best thing you can do to scare it. Really, Thorrold said you should do whatever your instinct is. “I doubt most people are going to remember, if they were ever attacked, that they should aim for the nose,’’ he said. If you do remember anything, let it be that the eyes and gills are more sensitive targets.

5. Don’t worry too much

This is for your mental health. As long as you’re alert and taking necessary precautions, you and great whites can play in the same waters. After all, there hasn’t been a fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936.

Related gallery: New England sharks

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