Over 80% of recorded shark fatalities along the west coast of North America occur north of Point Conception. If you surf, swim or dive in this area, the odds of an encounter with a large white shark are higher in what is called the Red Triangle– the area bounded by Big Sur, the Farallon Islands and Point Arena. Yet even in the months of peak white shark activity (in the months we call Sharktober), shark attacks are extremely rare, more rare than being struck by lightning, falling in the bathtub or even selfies.
According to recent statistics, surfers have the highest risk of a white shark attack off the west coast of North America, yet we can reduce that risk (besides trading in your board for golf clubs). For example, the riskiest time and place for California surfers is October and November in Mendocino County. According to the 2017 Stanford study, risk can be reduced 25-fold if you surf in March, and more than 1,600-fold if you surf in March between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems, and benefit prey populations and even humans by increasing ecosystem health. There is hope that through increased awareness, better data and warning systems we will minimize shark encounters. Individuals can also take responsibility to reduce a shark encounter. Below are suggestions we can take so both humans and sharks can swim unharmed.
- Avoid areas with high activity of seals in the water or where they are known to haul out.
- Don’t enter the water in areas of known shark activity. Confirmed hot spots in southern California include San Onofre, Seal Beach and Sunset beaches. Northern CA hotspots include Humboldt (Bunkers), Dillon Beach, Ano Nuevo and Pt Conception.
- Pay attention to nature’s signs. Circling birds, splashing water, a dead whale, feeding seals and dolphins all may indicate a shark is nearby.
- Use the buddy system. Like divers use as standard practice, swim or dive with a friend. Most shark attack survivors lived because they had immediate aid.
- Don’t look like shark food. A dark silhouette presents may resemble shark prey. Long boarders have the lowest risk among surfers with swimmers and divers the highest. Patterned wetsuits and surfboards are available and touted by some but not well tested by science or time for this species.
- Low light may add to a mistaken predation. White sharks have an incredible sensory toolkit but are also visual predators. These sharks may mistake swimmers or surfers as a seal or sea lion during hours of low light.
- River mouths or areas of low water visibility can increase risk. White sharks also frequent areas with deep channels and drop offs or canyons such as La Jolla and Monterey submarine canyons.
- Don’t bleed in the water. If you have a cut or abrasion, get out of the water. The evidence of sharks attracted to menstrual blood has been discounted.
- If you see a shark, alert others, stay calm and paddle away avoiding jerky, splashing motions and exit the water. Warn others and alert the lifeguards. If on a board, point the board towards the shark and keep your eye on it while exiting the ocean.
- Don’t feed the sharks. Shark feeding attracts and can aggravate sharks, and catalyze aggressive behavior.
- Observe the signs. Beaches will post if a large shark is sighted. Some like Stinson Beach have permanent signage. Tweets, drone footage and alerts on social media often outstrip the news and can alert ocean goers where high shark activity may be occurring. Sharks patrol areas and are not locals so in time a shark will leave an area.
Final Resort? Shark survivors have described striking or kicking the nose, eyes or gills as a successful (and last ditch) approach towards inducing the shark to release them. Return attacks with white sharks are extremely rare and the odds of survival are high with immediate stabilization and care.