Shark safety: How to react if you see one in the water

Local 6's Steven Cooper took a shark dive at the Florida Aquarium

(iStock Image)

Volusia County is the shark bite capital of the world, with 12 people bitten, on average, every year, according to the International Shark Attack File.

So how do you protect yourself?

First and foremost, sharks don't hunt humans, but they sometimes make mistakes.

Local 6's Steven Cooper spoke to the experts and went on a shark dive at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa to find out how to avoid being one of those mistakes.

Statistically speaking, sharks aren't really interested in us.

"We are a lousy source of food for sharks," says Eric Hovland, the curator at the Florida Aquarium. "They are looking for lean sources of food like fish or squid. Even if it's a great white shark, frankly, we're not fat enough."

Hovland supervised our dive in the shark tank. Waiting beneath the surface were two nurse sharks measuring seven to ten feet, a five-foot brown shark, and several sand tiger sharks measuring anywhere from eight to ten feet. They're all typical of sharks found in the waters off Florida.

"What you don't hear about is people being eaten by sharks or part of them being eaten," says Hovland. "It's rare, it's unusual. If it does happen, it's usually after another cause of death."

Basically, Hovland says you should forget everything you thought you knew about sharks.

While we were in the tank at the Florida Aquarium, we were told that these sharks are used to divers. In fact, they seemed indifferent to us. The environment was peaceful, the sharks hospitable. But would they act the same way if we encountered them in the ocean?

"The truth is, these sharks are behaving exactly as they would in the wild," says Hovland. "They move very gracefully and slowly through their environment."

Hovland says it would be very rare for a shark to swim right up to you. But if you're in the water and one does, don't panic.

"Frantic movement can sometimes replicate the emotions of an injured fish, and that can send out signals like a dinner bell," says Hovland. "It's really best to just stay calm."

The shark will likely swim away if you don't provoke it, Hovland adds. Unfortunately, most bites happen to victims who never saw the shark coming.

To avoid that:

  • Don't swim or dive at dusk or dawn, when sharks tend to feed.
  • Avoid river mouths, dropoffs, or anywhere that fishing is good.
  • Don't swim under piers or docks.
  • Avoid murky water, because the better the visibility is, the better the shark can see you and not mistake you for food. Most shark bites are cases of mistaken identity.

"As far as what we usually see, like blacktip sharks off the coast of Volusia County, they're looking for herring, looking for small fish," says Hovland. "And that's when they might make a mistake, see something shiny or wiggly, and go test it out, see what it is, like an ankle, or something dragging in the water."

Most fatalities are the result of blood loss. The sharks that are linked to fatalities tend to be bigger, like bull, tiger, and great white sharks, whose jaws are more powerful.

The most important precaution is to never swim or dive alone, because sharks tend to avoid groups of people.

And if something should go wrong, you're going to need a buddy to get you to shore to do some first aid and call for help.

In fact, the ones who should be calling for help are the sharks. Humans kill millions of them every year in accidental fishery catches. Many of them are slaughtered on purpose for their fins.

Last year, 12 people were killed worldwide by sharks. But about 70 million sharks were killed by people.

You can do a tank dive at the Florida Aquarium like we did. But you have to be 15 years old, and a certified diver. For more information, click here.

You can read more by clicking here to view Lifeguard: A Local 6 Summer Safety Special.