Sharks are everybody’s quintessential apex predator of the ocean (that title actually belongs to the killer whale who prey on sharks and even whales).
Thanks to media like Jaws and heart-wrenching news coverage of young, promising lives ended by these “man-eating” creatures, it starts to make people deathly afraid of even entering the water, let alone encountering a shark.
It doesn’t matter that these depictions of sharks are fiction; the damage has already been done to their reputation. Even though it’s unlikely to happen, we are going to write this article assuming a shark attack is imminent. So what do you do if you happen to encounter a shark while snorkeling?
If you encounter sharks while snorkeling and don’t want to take any chances, then the first thing you should do is to stay near your group. If you’re alone, then head to safe ground; back to land, the boat, or a shallow reef with corals. You should swim quickly but also rhythmically (as opposed to thrashing wildly) so you do not seem distressed.
The three sharks most likely to attack humans are the Great White, Tiger, and Bull sharks. You won’t be able to overpower a shark, but as a Hail Mary, you can try to hit their eyes, snout, or gills to startle them and make them back off.
It’s good to know the information above, but to be honest, most of it is common sense. The chances of you ever needing to fight off a shark is basically zero (you’d lose, by the way). Plus, staying with a group should be a given, and that alone is enough of a deterrent for most sharks.
As for the rest of this article, we will shed more light on how dangerous sharks really are and the steps you should do to stay safe in case you encounter some sharks (or other marine life with sharp teeth) while snorkeling.
Are sharks dangerous?
Technically, yes. Sharks are wild creatures that can react unpredictably, so you should be cautious around them. If you are acting sensibly and not doing anything to provoke the shark, the vast majority of them will leave you alone.
Even though sharks have the potential to be dangerous, statistically, sharks are not dangerous. On a global scale, sharks are responsible for only five unprovoked fatalities per year on average. In 2020, the number was 11, and that is considered unusually high.
Do you have any idea how many millions of people go into the ocean each year? The number of shark-related fatalities is astronomically low with such a large sample size.
That said, any loss of life is a tragedy, so even five deaths is five devastated families. But to go to such extreme lengths as to label sharks as insatiable killing machines (as the media often does, which influences public opinion) is not the right answer either.
As a comparison, dogs kill anywhere between 30-50 people each year in the United States. So, the cute fluffy furballs we keep as pets and won’t hesitate to pet are responsible for up to 10 times the fatalities as sharks, yet dogs don’t have the same stigma.
I don’t even need to pull up any official statistics on how many deaths car accidents are responsible for each year to know that it’s in the tens of thousands at least, yet I’m sure knowing that statistic won’t deter any one of us from driving.
Why did I bring up these examples? Essentially, what I’m illustrating is that sharks get a bad rap. It doesn’t help that they have dark, lifeless eyes and hundreds of razor sharp teeth. However, despite their appearance and reputation, it doesn’t match up with the statistics.
How likely is it to encounter sharks while snorkeling?
There’s no statistic, but the answer is very slim unless you’re specifically looking for them. Even tour companies cannot guarantee you will encounter sharks (unless they are doing something illegal like feeding them).
If you do see sharks, it’s probably going to be small, docile ones, not the man-eater sharks of your nightmares.
The sharks that are the most likely to attack are the Great White Shark, Bull Shark, and Tiger Shark, also known as the “Big Three.” However, remember that there is only an average of five unprovoked attacks worldwide per year, so saying they are high-risk might be a stretch.
Other sharks like the reef, nurse, and whale sharks are no threat to humans. Blacktip sharks are wary of humans but may become aggressive if there is food nearby.
So, seeing a shark doesn’t mean you’re in imminent danger. In fact, most snorkelers and scuba divers have never seen a shark up close before, even if they are avid ocean goers.
What to do if you encounter sharks while snorkeling
Maybe you want more than reassurances like “it’s statistically unlikely you’ll be attacked by a shark” or “you probably won’t even see a shark.” This section will focus on practical tips you can follow to stay safe if you see sharks while snorkeling.
Head to the closest safe area
If you see a shark, your instinct might be to head back to shore. However, the shore might be a few minutes away, and in that time a shark could easily reach you.
So instead, you should head to the nearest safe area. If you’re with a group but got separated, you should try to regroup because there is safety in numbers.
If you are close to a boat, try to head back to the boat. Otherwise, try to swim toward a sandbar or coral rock; sharks will struggle to reach you on shallow ground.
Depending on how far safety is, it might be better for you to dive down and swim along the seabed. Sharks can see you more easily if you’re by the surface.
Swim calmly and rhythmically
This is easier said than done, but try to stay calm and swim like normal. Try to perform smooth, graceful movements. Panicked splashing will make the shark think you are a fish in distress; it’s like a signal to attack.
There is also a very practical reason for staying calm: energy conservation. If you are flailing around like crazy, you are spending much-needed energy and you probably aren’t traveling very fast. Stay calm and swim rhythmically instead.
Let me preface this by saying that if a shark does charge at you with killing intent (as opposed to playing a game of chicken), it’s unlikely that you can overpower it.
However, if the shark is testing you or you just don’t like the idea of being a sitting duck, you can try to defend yourself.
If you’re lucky enough to have a weapon, like a dive knife or a speargun, then great. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely only on your hands.
It can be difficult to read a shark’s body language. Is it merely curious about you, or is it actively stalking you because it thinks you’re prey?
Either way, the sensitive areas you should go for are a shark’s snout, eyes, and gills. If a shark gets too close, you can hit its extremely sensitive snout, and that can startle the shark and make it back off.
Depending on how severe the situation is, you might want to aim for the eyes. Most animals stop their attack once their eyes have been damaged. This might not be possible with only your hands because a shark naturally closes its eyes when it goes in for a bite, but it’s worth trying.
Also, depending on the shark, the placement of the eyes can be different. With that said, the three most likely sharks to attack, the bull, tiger, and great white sharks, all have their eyes in relatively the same position, which is halfway along their jawline and roughly six inches above.
How to avoid sharks in the first place
Hopefully you won’t ever need to make use of the advice given above because if you follow the advice in this section, chances are you won’t even encounter a shark in the first place. If you don’t want a heartstopping face-to-face with a shark, here are some tips you can follow:
Stay away from food sources
There is a misconception that sharks like to hunt humans thanks to its portrayal in Jaws. That couldn’t be further from the truth, which is that sharks are on the hunt for fish.
The animal kingdom is a brutal place, and food is scarce. Sharks, like any other predator, will not pass up the opportunity to get an easy meal. They can get really aggressive as they fight over who gets the largest portions.
For this reason, you should avoid swimming near any fishing boats. Fishermen often throw undesirable pieces of fish overboard which attracts hungry seals and sharks, and sharks love to prey on seals as well.
If you notice any seals or dolphins in the area, be wary. Seals and dolphins are attracted to similar prey as sharks, so it can be a sign that a shark is nearby as well.
Stay with your group
It’s critically important that you keep track of your surroundings because it’s very easy to go off on your own and be separated from your group.
If a shark is going to attack anyone, it’s going to be the person who’s off by themself. Unlike what Jaws would have you believe, sharks tend to stay away from large groups of people.
There is safety in numbers, and if you want to stay safe, then stay near your fellow snorkelers. Not even a shark will dare approach a group of humans.
When you realize that you’ve drifted too far off and you’re alone and a shark is circling you, never take your eyes off the shark. If a shark were to attack, it would be from your blind spot, not head on.
Try to make your way to shallower waters or back to the group. If a shark were to attack (not likely), it would probably come from directly below, which is where a snorkeler/scuba diver would be most vulnerable. By heading to shallower water and never taking your eyes off the shark, you are not leaving it any openings to attack you.
Remove any reflective or shiny items
If you’re with a tour company, they will probably ask you to remove any jewelry, watches, or any other accessories that reflect light.
The bright reflection that these accessories give off makes you highly visible to a shark. It also is similar to the reflection of light of a fish’s scales, which can seem like a distressed animal to the shark.
If you are wearing a dive watch, consider covering it up with your wetsuit or rashguard so there are no bright lights coming from it.
Snorkel only in high-visibility areas
Water visibility is something to consider, especially if you want to enjoy your snorkeling session. Unfortunately, bad floods and weather may create turbulence that stirs up the sediment, reducing overall visibility.
As for how this is relevant to the article, if you can’t see anything, then you cannot see sharks approaching you.
Low visibility actually does not bother sharks very much because they have six powerful senses which they can detect prey with, even if their sense of sight is compromised.
They may not realize that you’re not a seal or a fish, but they can certainly detect something along the surface of the water and may attack you thinking you’re its usual prey.
The groups of people most susceptible to shark attacks are swimmers or people engaging in a board sport (e.g. surfing).
This may alarm you, because something these sports have in common is that they take place along the surface of the water, which snorkeling does as well.
However, in the article linked above, you’ll be happy to learn that snorkelers and freedivers are a low-risk group.
The reason why sharks target surfers and swimmers is because this group spends a lot of time in areas that sharks frequently swim in. They also splash, paddle, and wipe-out, which can trick the shark into thinking there is a distressed fish along the surface.
Snorkeling and freediving tends to avoid this issue because they are all about conserving energy.
For snorkeling specifically, with the help of a flotation device, you don’t even need to move at all as you are peacefully floating along the surface of the water.
Now, if you are not good at swimming, it’s possible that the combination of nervousness and improper swimming technique can create a lot of splashing.
Depending on where you are, there may be a preferred time for certain sharks to be more active. For instance, bull sharks (one of the big three) tend to come out around dusk, so be aware when the sun goes down.
Pay close attention to any signs or verbal warnings given by locals. If sharks have been spotted in the area, consider going another time.
Is snorkeling with sharks safe?
There are a variety of sharks that are docile and extremely unlikely to attack humans. However, at the end of the day, sharks are wild animals.
It would be remiss of us to say that any wild creature is 100% safe to be around. If they feel threatened or if they are desperate enough, they may attack humans.
If you want to snorkel with sharks, go with a tour company so that a professional can safely guide you through the experience.
Also, if you do want to see a shark, do NOT attract them by bringing food. Feeding sharks is dangerous for both the shark and human. A desperate shark will not wait for you to patiently feed them and may just attack you outright.
Furthermore, feeding sharks is normalizing their dependency on humans. They may lose their ability to hunt for themselves, and they will approach every human they encounter because they think they are about to get fed.
Naturally, if a shark approaches an unsuspecting human, that’s a recipe for disaster, and why sometimes you hear all these stories about aggressive sharks that seem to approach people unprovoked.
If you want to snorkel with sharks, go with a tour company and pray that they are ethical and that you will naturally come across some sharks, not because the operator is feeding them.