When my family moved from the Maryland suburbs to a small Florida beach town six years ago, shark sightings were the last thing on my mind. Instead, my daydreams consisted of how nice it would be to walk down to the beach from my home, a very different life from the once-a-year weekly beach vacation I had as a kid.
My children, who were 6 and 8 at the time, had other ideas. In those early years of beach life, they sat on the sand, staring at the ocean and feeling more than a little afraid of what was hiding in the water that was now, literally, their backyard. There have been conversations about how rare shark encounters were. We did a marine biology teaching unit, where we focused on the good things sharks do for the environment. Summer camps where they learned to surf and practice ocean safety have become the norm.
And somewhere along the way, my shark-obsessed kids have morphed into tweens and teens scurrying across the ocean fearlessly. Over the past six years, we’ve even seen a few fins go by in the ocean and played in shallow water where we had to take a break while a pod of nurse sharks passed by (nerve-wracking, yes, but we made it).
However, when the headlines rage about the rise in east coast shark sightings and the great whites washed up on the shores of New York, I wonder: is it us, who spend exponentially more time in the ocean than the average beach vacationer, at greater risk than a Jaws-esque encounter?
Jim Kinsler, SeaWorld Orlando’s aquarium manager, says it’s unlikely. Kinsler dives with the hundreds of sharks that call SeaWorld home every day and says sharks are all about curiosity.
“We dive with our sharks every day and even though those sharks may be used to our presence, they are still very curious,” he tells Yahoo Life. “White tip sharks are a great example: when we enter the water with those species, they come directly to us and investigate us even though they’ve seen us hundreds of times.”
How common are shark attacks?
“It’s super rare,” Kinsler says of shark-related incidents. “The reality – the classic comparison – is that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than by a shark.”
“When we go out to sea or surf, we are in the shark habitat,” he adds. “That’s where they live. We’re enjoying their home and, inevitably, it’s possible for us to get in touch with each other.”
Because they don’t have fingers and hands like humans, Kinsler claims that sharks use what they have to investigate their environment, namely their mouth and teeth.
“Their main option for testing an object is to bite it,” he says. “Very often it is a case of wrong identity or they are just testing something because they are not sure what it is or it has a smell or a vibration that they are curious about.”
While the chances of being nipped by a shark on your beach vacation are rare, it’s even more rare for a shark bite to cause serious harm, says Kinsler. “If a small shark, say a three-foot Atlantic black tip, were to bite you on the heel, it could break the skin and make you bleed, but that’s all that happens,” she explains. “The shark takes off because clearly, that’s not what the shark was interested in. If you look at maybe something like a six foot bull shark, just for the size, it will do a lot more damage.”
Kinsler’s verdict: It is extremely rare to encounter a shark in the wild and even rarer to be bitten. And, even if you’re “investigated” by a shark, there’s a good chance the damage will be minimal.
How can you stay safe (and avoid shark encounters) on the beach?
Once he gets to the beach and sets up chairs and umbrellas, Kinsler says to take a look around.
“You really have to be aware of your surroundings,” he says. “Are there fishermen in the area? Are there people casting lines with baited hooks – something that would attract a shark? Sharks are stimulated by injured or sick fish – this is part of how sharks keep our oceans healthy.”
“Are there many schools of fish splashing around in the surf?” Kinsler continues. “Are there birds that feed on those fish? We want to think about our surroundings when we’re in the water – the bottom line is situational awareness means everything to ensure you have a safe and fun day.”
Kinsler says the reality of every day at the beach is: there are very often sharks around you, and you just don’t know it. “People are in and around sharks when they swim just offshore,” he says. “I’m always out there. Be aware.”
What would a world without sharks be like?
If sharks disappeared completely from the world’s oceans, Kinsler says the marine ecosystem would collapse. But a world without sharks is not an impossible reality: over 100 million sharks are currently being removed from the oceans every year due to overfishing and by-catches. Kinsler says sharks may be an apex predator that received a nasty movie screen robbery, but “they deserve our protection and respect.”
“Sometimes people think, ‘What happens in the ocean happens in the ocean. It doesn’t affect us as terrestrial creatures,’ but it’s not true – everything is connected,” says Kinsler. “We have to think about it in terms of the food web found in the ocean: ultimately, at the top of that life cycle are sharks, and if we remove the sharks, the smaller fish species they prey on simply swell in numbers.” .
“You would have this massive population explosion and they would consume all the food available to them and it would completely collapse,” he continues. “All of these species would disappear because there would be nothing like sharks to keep population numbers in check. Sharks are incredibly important.”
How do you help children overcome their fear of sharks?
Kinsler says it’s this kind of marine life education that can help children understand why sharks exist and be less afraid of them. In fact, at SeaWorld Orlando, kids can touch a shark, learn about different shark species, and even dine at a restaurant where the sharks swim past during the meal. At Orlando’s Discovery Cove theme park, families can even swim with sharks as part of a deeper learning experience.
“Sharks are fantastic animals,” Kinsler says, explaining that they are rarely threatened or attacked out of rage. “There are situations where you can be in close proximity to a shark, but this probably happens more in the ocean around areas like wrecks where a shark can frequent that area.”
“Sharks inhabit practically every ocean, every sea, every marine environment on the globe, so if you talk to children, it’s about paying attention to what’s happening in and around the water and also trying to make them understand how important it is. sharks are for the environment, “he adds.
What should you do if you encounter a shark while swimming?
If you are Not In the safety of a theme park and find yourself rubbing against a shark in the open sea, Kinsler says there is a rule: “Don’t panic.”
“Even sharks can be surprised,” he says, “and so if I’m standing on the surf and I see a little hood head or black tip on the coast, I’ll just let them pass. Don’t try to reach out and grab them, don’t run away, don’t splash water. These are all things that could scare the animal just as it could scare you if an animal approaches and splashes in front of or around you. ”
“Be patient, be calm and walk or swim slowly to shore,” he adds. “Remember that it’s often curiosity, so if you get their attention, they might be curious and investigate. Being calm is the key. ”
“As long as we respect their space, as long as we respect who they are and what they do and as long as, if we are in the ocean, we remember that that is their territory and we need to be aware – in those moments they can coexist safely.”
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