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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 January 2006, 12:19 GMT
How best to fight off a shark?
The Magazine answers...

Shark pictured in Sydney Aquarium
Should you fight back or play dead?
An Australian diver has narrowly survived a shark attack by fighting it with his speargun - the latest in a long line of shark-related incidents. So what is the best way to take on a shark and win?

Bernie Williams, a 46-year-old Australian scuba-diver, fought off repeated attacks by an 11ft (3.5m) shark by hitting it on the nose with his speargun.

As is most often the case, he didn't see the shark coming until it bit him.

Mr Williams said: "It just came out from my left hand side... chomped on my arm and took me for a ride for about two metres.

"I stabbed it on the nose with a speargun, but it was just like hitting a lump of steel. It didn't slow down in the slightest."

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer questions behind the headlines
The shark retreated before making another attack on Mr Williams, giving him just enough time to hide in a crevice near the ocean floor until his diving buddies came to the rescue.

So was Mr Williams' response a text book example of defence or are there better ways to take on Jaws?

Escape strategy

George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and the International Shark Attack File, says the first thing to do is get out of the water as soon as possible.

"Have an escape strategy at all times," he says, "But, if you're diving and can't get out of the water easily, find a place at the bottom of the ocean. This reduces the number of angles the shark can attack you from."

George Burgess
Get out of the water ASAP
If you can't, head for the sea floor or hide in reeds
If cornered by a shark, hit it hard on the nose with an object
Avoid using bare hands and feet if possible
Target the gills and eyes which are sensitive
Never, ever 'play dead'
Mr Burgess recommends you swim back to back with your dive partner which gives you two pairs of eyes to watch for the shark.

Although getting out of the water as soon as you see a shark sounds like sound advice, most attacks come out of the blue. Victims do not know they are in danger until the shark attacks.

"If you can't escape before an attack, hit it with an object - like a spear or camera or whatever you have to hand - avoid using your bare hands. You can replace your camera easily, but not your hands and feet.

"If the shark is persistent hit it hard on the end of the nose which is just a little north of the mouth. But be careful, if you miss you'll place your hand or weapon in the shark's jaws."

In an all-out shark-fight Mr Burgess, perhaps unsurprisingly, recommends being as aggressive as possible.

Play dead?

Juggling didn't come high up on tips for fending off sharks...
"Fight like a man," he says, "If you can, get your hands into the gill openings on the side of the shark which are very sensitive."

He also debunks the myth that remaining motionless may fool a circling shark into ignoring you and heading off for other prey.

"Whatever you do, don't ever play dead, if you're attacked and you can't escape you will have to fight back and then get out of the water as soon as you can."

Aidan Martin, Director of Australia's Reefquest Centre for Shark Research, echoes Mr Burgess' advice but adds that it's important not to panic.

"That may seem like a tall order under the circumstances, but most shark attacks result in injuries that are readily survivable. Do nothing to unnecessarily incite a retaliatory strike... I have no doubt it's possible to annoy a shark."

Mr Martin adds you should try to staunch any bleeding, even before you get out of the water.

So, full marks to attack-survivor Mr Williams who responded exactly as recommended. But should we all be more aware of the dangers? Are sharks attacking more humans?

Total: 109 alleged attacks
Unprovoked: 61
Provoked: 15
Biting vessels: 12
Insufficient information: 13
Dismissed as non-attacks: 5
Source: International Shark Attack File


Decade on decade the number of shark attacks on people has increased.

However, Mr Burgess says, this is only because the number of humans spending more time in the water, and in deeper waters too. In effect, people are invading the sharks' territory.

"When I starting diving years ago we were oddballs, now it is a very common water activity. In reality, we're pushing the sharks out of the water."

Mr Martin agrees: "We need to stop treating the ocean like a swimming pool. It is a wilderness. And when we enter this liquid wilderness, we must assume responsibility for our own safety."

Your comments:

I have seen sharks many times while diving. I agree that you shouldn't panic- in fact, if you try to get close to one, they will try to avoid you. I believe they only attack people when there is some confusion about whether we could be food. If you're not splashing around in terror, injured, or holding a bag of dead fish, you should be ok. Just calmly get out of the water.
Matt, Northampton, USA

I certainly agree with Mr Burgess - we have invaded the oceans and should be responsible for that. Sadly there are those that believe the killing sharks should be hunted down and killed simply because of an attack - a typical selfish attitude of the human race. I think a lot can be learned by Mr Burgess's comments and professional knowledge.
Trevor, Kent.

I totally agree with Mr Martin's comment about the ocean being treated like a swimming pool. Surely throwing meat into the water to attract sharks and then lowering a person in a cage into their territory is causing an association between food and humans for them. Surely with this kind of behaviour we are asking for trouble. The ocean should be treated with as much respect as the jungle, after all you wouldn't go wandering into a bear's cave in the same manner.
Kelly Oliver, Peterborough

Nice to read a story with a happy ending!!! Even better to read a shark attack story that doesn't portray attacking sharks as monsters of the deep. Congratulations.
Simon Davey, London U.K.

Clearly, there are some people out there who either believe they can read the minds of one of the most dangerous animals on the planet, or that they have a right to invade their natural habitat just because they can. Good luck to them, I say.
UE, UK/Nigeria

Never wear any jewellery or shiny objects that attracts sharks.
rocky han, los angles

After some Florida shark attacks, a news story on NPR revealed that tourist boats would lure sharks by throwing meat over the side of the boat so their clients, could say they saw a shark. Then people who swim in those waters are naturally thought to be meals!
Marianne Lindsey, Lakewood, Washington, USA

If you go into their environment, you take your chances. Isn't that part of the thrill, the buzz. I have swum with Bull Sharks who attack more people than any other shark, and the buzz was just the business. It is amazing how much more restricted your vision is when you have your goggles on, and of course vision is your only sense. You don't hear them coming... I've not been attacked and have no idea how I would react, but if you do use your camera to hit it with, make sure you have your finer on the button and are taking photo's, what a kodak moment!!
Julian, London

It is a shame that these attacks get such sensationalist headlines. If I was to walk into a pride of lions and get eaten, most people would think I was an idiot, but if I go swimming in the sea and get eaten by a shark, it's the sharks fault!! Shark attacks are so rare and most people survive them. Apparently you are more likely to be struck by lightning than be attacked by a shark. However, all the negative publicity about sharks overshadows the perilous position they are in with 100 million sharks being killed by humans a year (mainly for the shark fin soup trade). It is a tragedy because most sharks are harmless. I have seen them many times when I have dived and they are the most beautiful, graceful creatures, unless of course you're talking about the Wobbegong shark which looks like a dirty carpet.
Joe Langfield, Nelson, New Zealand

I think the last paragraph of this article sums it up perfectly. The Ocean is a wild place and the general public should treat it so. If you go on safari in Africa you wouldn't get out of the car when lions are around! Even walking in the bush is dangerous but if you know the signs and respect your environment then it is relatively safe. People should adopt these attitudes when in the ocean and the quicker we realise that the better for us and for the sharks.
Richard Shelmerdine, Oban, UK

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