5 Expert Tips for Surviving a Shark Attack

Paul de Gelder takes part in Shark Week 2019.
Paul de Gelder takes part in Shark Week 2019.
Courtesy of Discovery Channel

With the Discovery Channel rolling out its annual Shark Week programming, we’re once again reminded of our fascination with sharks, the apex predators who possess the destructive power of a table saw.

Why the appeal? According to shark expert and former Australian Navy clearance diver Paul de Gelder, ruminating over sharks and their ability to dominate us in the open waters is just human nature. “It’s fear of the unknown,” de Gelder tells Mental Floss. “It’s a fear of an animal you can’t see coming eating you alive.”

De Gelder is uniquely qualified to comment on our preoccupation with sharks. In 2009, he was attacked by a bull shark, which took part of his right arm and part of his right leg. Rather than hold a grudge, de Gelder has become a shark advocate. “I never blamed the shark,” he says. “The shark was just doing what a shark does in the ocean.”

Attacks like the one de Gelder endured are incredibly rare. According to the International Shark Attack File maintained by the Florida Museum, just 66 confirmed attacks were recorded in 2018. Of those, 32 were unprovoked attacks—in other words, an incident "where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark." (In many cases, these attacks are more like test bites, with sharks using their mouth to explore the potential for something being dinner.)

On the highly unlikely chance you come face-to-nose with a shark, de Gelder has some tips that may improve your chances of survival. And don't forget to catch de Gelder on various Shark Week programs like Shark Trip: Eat. Prey. Chum and Laws of Jaws: Dangerous Waters this week.

1. Don’t panic around a shark.

If you’re in water and find yourself suddenly in the company of a shark, instinct will tell you to relocate immediately. Resist that urge. "When you see a predator, you want to get away as fast as possible," de Gelder says. "But then you’re far more likely to get bitten." Panicking will put a shark in predatory mode. Remember: Just because a shark is around doesn’t mean you’re automatically on the menu. "When we do swims with sharks, nine out of 10 people will say, ‘I didn’t feel threatened. I didn’t feel like the shark wanted to attack me. It was just curious.’ Hold on to that. It will keep you calm."

2. Try to maintain eye contact with the shark.

Paul de Gelder gets up close with a hammerhead during Shark Week 2019Courtesy of Discovery Channel

Like dogs, sharks respect assertiveness. "The best thing to do is confront a shark," de Gelder says. "Not with aggression. Stay calm. Keep your eyes on it. Show them you’re a predator, as well." If a shark approaches, you can push them away. You don’t want to start a fight you’re likely to lose, but you may avoid one by letting the shark know you’re not docile.

3. If a shark attacks, fight back.

The unfortunate reality of a shark attack is that if one does decide you might be food, you don’t have much say in the matter. Even a test bite, where the shark may give you an inquisitive nibble, can cause grievous injury. And if it’s a full-bore assault, you’re in all kinds of trouble. “'When the shark grabbed me, I felt pressure," de Gelder says of his own attack. "But I didn’t feel the teeth go in. I didn’t feel any pain until it started shaking me and ripping me apart."

Still, doing something is better than nothing. De Gelder advises to "go wild," punching and attacking the shark however you can. The eyes, nose, and gills are all good targets. "Anything that shows the shark you won’t take it," he says. "Maybe you’ll get out." Having a weapon on hand is even better. You can use a knife and aim for the gills or underside of the shark, but don’t try stabbing the top. “You won’t be able to penetrate it,” he says.

4. If a shark has bitten your arm, keep it over your head.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a shark lose interest, swim as fast as you’re able to shore or safety. If you have an arm wound, make sure you keep it raised above your heart. “Keeping it above your heart will stem the bleeding,” de Gelder says. After losing his hand to the shark that attacked him, de Gelder had the presence of mind to raise his arm, which may have contributed to his survival.

5. Whatever you do, try not to look at the wound.

Paul de Gelder appears in Shark Week 2019.Courtesy of Discovery Channel.

Humans are no match for sharks, and the wounds the animals inflict can be devastating. One thing de Gelder was careful not to do was look at his severely damaged leg. “I thought that if I didn’t look at the wound, I wouldn’t go into shock,” he says. "It’s kind of like when a little kid cuts his finger. He doesn’t start crying until he sees blood. I knew there was something wrong with my leg but I didn’t know what. I knew it might be horrific. I didn’t focus on it.”

Shark Week 2019 runs through Sunday, August 4th. You can view the full lineup of programming here.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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