When wavesailor Eric Welte crashed inside the surfline at California's Waddell Creek last summer, he was perturbed. His confusion changed to horror as he felt jagged teeth clamp through his neoprene bootie.
After receiving two chomps on the foot, Welte managed to climb on his board, only to see his assailant thrashing violently under his sail window. Fearing the worst, he jumped into the surf, and high-tailed it to shore. The attacker turned out to be an ill-tempered seal!
No wonder Welte was frightened, though. With all the rumors going around, you'd think sharks have nothing better to do than lurk in the ocean underworld, licking their chops and waiting for juicy windsurfers to fall in their path. Yet your changes of being attacked by a shark are relatively small ... especially if you're a windsurfer.
We've been hearing this shark talk for too darn long. With more and more sailors venturing into the ocean each year, it's time to dispel some of the myths surrounding the shark. Besides, there are some preventive tips that do bear mentioning.
By modern standards, ancient superstitions surrounding the shark may seem farfetched. Nevertheless, the most hardened rationalists might wince at these recent coincidences:
Myth: Sharks have terrible eyesight.
Fact: Sharks have excellent eyesight and see well in dim light. In fact, shark corneas have been used as transplants for human corneas.
Myth: Sharks are brainless eating machines.
Fact: Not only are sharks' brains physically large, but young nurse sharks have been trained to come, touch and retrieve objects on command.
Myth: "When dolphins are near, have no fear."
Fact: Sharks and dolphins can and do kill each other, but they are often seen swimming together.
Myth: No windsurfer has ever been attacked by a shark.
Fact: Scott Shoemaker was attacked while windsurfing at Hookipa in 1982, suffering leg wounds that required 120 stiches.
There are 344 known kinds of sharks. The largest is the whale shark, which has been measured at more than 41 feet (21 tons), and is estimated to reach almost 60 feet. Despite its size, the whale shark feeds on plankton and is so harmless it can be ridden by humans.
Sharks grow throughout their lives. Their highly specialized teeth are continuously renewed and vary according to each breed's dining preference. Their skeletons are mostly cartilage, and their skin is covered with tiny toothlike denticles with the same internal structure as their teeth.
Most sharks' eyelids are fixed in their sockets. Sharks can hear well enough to detect prey at great distances, and their sense of smell, which improves with hunger, is exceptionally sharp. Even more prominent is their ability to detect other creatures' electronic fields--the greatest sensitivity of any animal we know.
Sharks normally cruise at speeds of less than 1 mph. They're capable of high-speed bursts but tire quickly. Warm-blooded sharks such as the great white, which is partially warm-blooded, are the strongest swimmers.
Sharks are predominantly meat-eaters, feeding on foods ranging from tiny plankton to large whales. While they prefer live, fresh food, hungry sharks have been known to eat decayed flesh, though tender shark pups are the delicacy of choice. In fact, while newly captured sharks generally refuse all offerings of food, they hungrily devour live baby sharks or hunks of fresh shark liver.
The tiger shark is particularly known for its indiscriminate eating habits. Dissections of tiger sharks have revealed stomach contents including nuts and bolts, coiled wire, lumps of coal, boat cushions, clothing, a tom-tom, and unopened can of salmon, garbage, driftwood, birds, other sharks, dolphins, selas and even the head of a crocodile. Not surprisingly, their stomachs also reveal an occasional human.
Of course, not all these objects can be digested by a shark. Hard objects that cannot be digested remain intact in the stomach for quite awhile, but finally are regurgitated. Much can be discovered about the circumstances surrounding an attack if the animal can be captured and cut open.
Sharks are virtually disease-free. Their greatest enemies are man, other sharks and killer whales.
The sharks that are most threatening to humans are the great whites and tiger sharks.
The great white is the only shark that can hold its head above water to see what's happening on the surface. This shark is believed to be territorial, returning to the same location every year.
The size of its territory depends on available food and the number of other sharks present to help eat it. They frequently live near seal colonies, often in groups designated by size and sex.
Along the West Coast of the U.S., great whites feed on sea lions and elephant, harbor and fur seals; in the western north Atlantic they are thought to feed primarily on dead whales.
The area that extends from Bodega Bay down to the south end of Monterey Bay and out to the Farallon Islands, known as "the red triangle," is particularly well-known for its abundance of great white sharks. At almost any time, people visiting Ano Nuevo, the Farallones or Guadalupe Island can observe seals with fresh or healing shark wounds.
Great whites feed infrequently, although their exact time between meals is unknown. (One 1982 study showed that a 15-foot shark can live for about 45 days on 66 pounds of whale blubber).
A great white attack usually consists of one massive bite taken from under or behind the chosen prey. (Attacks to the head are rare.)
As the shark's jaws open, its whole head changes shape: Its mouth moves to the front, and its snout bends up out of the way. During the attack the shark cannot see its victim, instead relying on its electronic field sensors to keep track of the prey.
The moments after the initial attack are crucial: Humans who have been bitten once generally can escape if they get help from a buddy or make it to shore on their own. But sharks usually lose interest after the first bite. (Maybe it's our fast-foot diet.)
Reports of two 21-foot tiger sharks caught in Australian shark nets, and unconfirmed fishermen' reports of an 18.5-foot shark caught in New South Wales and a 12-foot shark caught in the Gulf of Panama, are among the largest sightings.
In addition to eating seals, sea lions, and the variety of refuse listed above, hungry tiger sharks can munch right through the shells of large sea turtles.
Hunger probably prompted a tiger shark to attack speedsailor Roddy Lewis while he surfed a remote spot in Maui's Wailuaiki Bay last spring. Several elements were against Lewis--the water was murky, sticks and other objects floated nearby, and he and his buddy had paddled to an isolated spot to escape the crowd. In fact, Lewis says he thought, "This is perfect water for sharks ...," about five seconds before the attack.
As the 10- to 12-foot shark gripped his leg and tried to pull him under, Lewis beat it on the side of the head and drove it off, then managed to catch a wave and surf in to shore. Doctors managed to save Lewis's leg, and he reportedly is planning to resume surfing.
Also defying the stereotype, most sharks are not inherently vicious. Sharks generally attack for two reasons: for food and when they feel threatened. (It's conceivable that sharks view the speeding, sharp-nosed, sharp-finned windsurfing boards that slam into them as a threat.) However, sharks have bad days like everyone else, as evidenced by occasional reports of sharks chasing swimmers onto the sand or beaching themselves in an attempt to bite passing beach strollers.
One such story was related to me by longtime surfer and avid windsurfer Mike Schecter. Several years ago when Schecter was surfing with his buddies down in Acapulco, a decidedly irate shark, swimming at an alarming speed, made his way toward the group. Everyone quickly paddled for the beach, but the shark popped up right beneath one fellow's board, chomping and snapping. Following a dramatic struggle, the surfer managed to catch a wave into the beach, followed by the shark, who unsuccessfully chased him onto the sand.
Frustrated, the shark turned away and headed down the coast, leaving the surfers with a premonition of bad things to come. Sure enough, a Canadian tourist was reportedly eaten later that day.
Much attention has been given to the theory that sharks can't recognize a proper meal when they see one, often mistaking a bony surfer for a plump, juicy seal.
The modern trend toward short surfboards has probably contributed to this resemblance. However, shark scientists are divided on the issue since recent evidence implies that sharks' senses are quite keen (making mistakes unlikely) and that one may attack indiscriminately simply because it's hungry.
When Scott Shoemaker ws attacked at Hookipa, the shark's motivation was probably territorial rather than a hankering for a tasty meal. Shoemaker was sailing at full speed, well away from the shore, when a sudden impact caused his board to spin out, leaving him dangling from his booms with a 4-5 foot reef shark attached to one thigh. He let go of the boom, pushed the shark off with his hand and crawled onto his board to await the next attack. When none came, he mustered his nerve, jumped in the water, rearranged his rig, waterstarted and sailed to shore. His friends whisked him off to the hospital.
Shoemaker says he felt no pain at the time of the attack, but the look of terror in his eyes must have been quite a sight.
(Reef shark attacks generally are more common among divers than surfers.)
On the other hand, just as the likelihood of being struck by lightning increases significantly if you live in Kansas or Oklahoma, your chances of being attacked by a shark increase if you spend five days a week in the ocean.
It's difficult to come up with a statistic for the probability of attack because it's hard to estimate how many people go to the beach each day, how many actually enter the water and for how long. Reader's Digest's book, Sharks, compares the likelyhood of drowning to that of being attacked by a shark: Drownings are 1,000 per every one shark attack in the U.S., 600 to 1 in South Africa, and 50 to 1 in Australia.
Studies indicate that 79-90 percent of all attacks on humans occur at the surface. This may be because sharks prefer to attack animals that are at the surface, or it may simply result from the fact that humans spend most of their time in the water on the surface.
About half of all divers attacked report having seen the shark prior to the attack; most other victims are caught unaware. More attacks occur during spear fishing or feeding fish--the blood in the water attracts sharks.
Attacks occur both in and out of the surf zone, at various depths and in clear or cloudy water, although sharks prefer cloudy water and areas near harbors, docks, jetties, bays, channels and rivers. Floating garbage may also be a factor in tropical shark attacks.
The likelihood of an attack increases significantly when the water surface is calm, especially in the evening and early morning, when the sharks move closer to the shore in search of food.
Underwater shark nets are an effective control in coastal swimming areas. The nets have been strategically positioned along many popular beaches in Australia to guide sharks away from the enclosed areas. This is mostly to protect sharks from humans, not the other way around.
In South Africa, researchers have developed an electric shark barrier that keeps sharks outside the surf zone.
While these methods do prevent attacks, they are quite costly and are unlikely to appear along our coastlines any time soon.
Elise MacGregor, a videographer, freelance writer and windsurfer in Santa Cruz, California, is most comfortable in the ocean when surrounded by people wearing yellow bathing suits and shiny jewelry.
Attacks rarely occur in southern California, where an absence of rivers and rocky headlands keeps down the local seal population. Perhaps also significant, southern California abalone divers are allowed to use scuba, while northern abalone divers must stick to breathhold-diving, which keeps them at the surface and thus increases their chances of being attacked.
There have been 67 great white attacks confirmed in California since 1926 (less conservative raw data, which may include attacks on ships and/or unsubstantiated accounts, puts the number of attacks closer to 120), 11 in Oregon, one in Washington, and two in Guadalupe Island/Baja, California. (This last number is low for the obvious reason that statistics for Baja are hard to obtain.) Sixty-five of the California attacks occured in northern and central California. Six of the confirmed California attacks were fatal, as was one in Oregon. Here's what the victims were doing when they were attacked:
Swimming 9 Free diving 23 Surfing 26 Hookah diving 7 Scuba diving 12 Kayaking 4
Hawaii 16 (11) Maui 24 (8) Molokai 5 Oahu 43 (20) Kauai 11 (5) Kaula 1 Midway 2Attacks have increased since 1950, with 14 attacks in the 1950s, 24 in the 1980s, and 14 since 1990.
Victims were enjoying the following activities before the attacks:
Swimming/snorkeling 23 (8) Spearfishing while snorkeling 6 (1) Scuba diving 4 (3) Spearfishing with scuba 2 (2) Hard-hat diving 1 Surfing 16 (2) Body boarding 5 (2) Windsurfing 1 Body surfing 3 (1) Inner tube (w/lobsters) 1 Wading 1 Fell/swept into sea from land 16 (16) Fell off boat or capsized 4 (3) Fishing/crabbing 13 (4) Activity unknown 5 (1)
The number of attacks, confirmed and unconfirmed, reported for each state is:
Georgia 6 South Carolina 31 North Carolina 4 Virginia 5 Delaware 4 New Jersey 28 New York 12 Connecticut 2 Massachusetts 7
Alabama 2 Mississippi 2 Louisiana 2 Texas 24
Source: Steinhart Aquarium and National Marines Fisheries Service