Obligatory Summer Reading

What To Know About Shark Attacks: A Parents’ Non-Alarmist, No Bullsh*t Guide

Shark Week: SO fun. Shark attacks: Not so much.

A flag with a shark warning flies as beachgoers depart July 26, 2023 at Nauset Beach in Orleans Mass...
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

If your summer plans include long days at the beach with the fam, there's a not-zero chance you're concerned about shark attacks. After all, when three people were bitten by sharks in Florida within 90 minutes on June 7, reports of the bites dominated headlines. And though these situations are extremely rare, you might be wondering how common a shark attack is, what you should do to keep your family safe in the water, and what you should do if you do find yourself or a loved one facing a shark bite. (Eeep.)

First, some reassuring stats from Bernard Fisher, the director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association: "Over the past 10 years, there have been approximately 487 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in the USA," Fisher tells Scary Mommy. "Despite their dramatic nature, your chances of encountering a shark are very low. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the likelihood of a fatal shark attack is 1 in 4,332,817, making it much more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a shark."

In fact, Florida is the state that boasts the highest number of unprovoked shark attacks in the world, though they are still exceedingly rare, all things considered.

How to Protect Your Kids/Family

To help protect your family while in the water, Fisher offers the following tips:

  • Swim in Groups: "Sharks are more likely to target lone swimmers," he says, which makes the buddy system all the more critical.
  • Avoid Dawn, Dusk, and Night Swimming: "Sharks are most active during these times," so limit your family's swimming to peak daylight hours.
  • Stay Close to Shore: "This reduces the chances of encountering a shark and makes rescue easier if necessary," notes Fisher.
  • Avoid Wearing Shiny Jewelry: "The reflection can resemble fish scales and attract sharks," which means your fun baubles are best suited for the beach bag.
  • Be Cautious Around Fishing Areas: "Avoid swimming near fishing piers or boats where bait may attract sharks."
  • Do Not Enter the Water with an Open Wound: "Sharks can smell blood from miles away and might be attracted to it," he says, though it's worth noting that the chances of being attacked by a shark due to period blood (or even urine) are still very, very slim.
  • Stay Vigilant: "Always be aware of your surroundings and look for warning signs or flags indicating shark activity," Fisher advises.
  • Adhere to the Advice of Lifeguards: "Always follow the instructions given by lifeguards and beach officials."

What to Do If You See a Shark Nearby

Even though your primal instinct will be to panic, Fisher advises trying to keep your cool as best you can — yes, even if your kids are with you in the shark-infested seas. "If you spot a shark in the water nearby, remain calm and do not make sudden movements," he says. "Slowly and smoothly swim back to shore, keeping an eye on the shark without splashing."

Richard Peirce, an author, shark expert, and former chair of the UK-based Shark Trust and Shark Conservation Society, told CNN that many times, sharks give "exploratory bites," meaning they're not actually trying to attack you, because they genuinely try to avoid people. (Guess the feeling is mutual!)

"A shark has got no paws or hands, so if it wants to explore something, the only capability it's got to do that is to put it in its mouth," Peirce told the outlet. "That's why we often get exploratory bites which don't result in death and sometimes don't even result in serious injury. If you go swimming and splashing away, you're almost inviting the shark to come give you an exploratory or an attack bite."

He recommends maintaining eye contact as best as possible, especially if the shark seems to be in attack mode. Then, you'll want to make your body as big as possible. "The bigger you are in the water, the more respect you'll get," he said.

If the shark is simply passing through, curling up into a ball lets them know you're not competition, and they'll (hopefully!) just swim right past you.

What to Do If Someone Gets Bitten

If a shark bite occurs, you'll want to do your best to kick, punch, and poke the shark (OMG, we know!) in sensitive spots. Peirce recommends going for the gills, as opposed to the nose, because right beneath the nose is their mouth. Also, if you're holding anything, use it as a weapon. "If you're a diver with an underwater camera, use it; if you're a snorkeler, rip off your snorkel and use it to poke the shark," he told CNN.

As soon as you're able, swimming calmly out of the water is key because you'll want to begin triage ASAP. Fisher's top tips:

  • Get Out of the Water: Help the victim out of the water as quickly and calmly as possible.
  • Stop the Bleeding: Apply pressure to the wound using a clean cloth or bandage, if available.
  • Call for Help: Immediately call emergency services or alert lifeguards, or ask a specific bystander to do so.
  • Keep the Victim Calm and Warm: Lay the person down and keep them warm to prevent shock until medical help arrives.

As scary as this all sounds, you can rest easy knowing that the chances of facing a real-life Jaws situation are pretty unlikely. That said, at least you can be prepared, so make sure you share this info with your kids and anyone else you're swimming with, and hopefully, you'll never need to actually apply any of it.