How to avoid great white sharks and what to do if you encounter one


Great white sharks typically return to Atlantic Canadian waters around this time of year, and their presence has been captivating people around the Maritimes recently, due in part to efforts to tag and track their movements.

The increase in shark activity also increases the likelihood of encountering one — while swimming or surfing, perhaps.

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That’s why Vanessa Schiliro, a marine biology student at Dalhousie University, decided to educate the public about how to avoid shark encounters and what to do if you come across a great white .

She helped develop a video and infographic of “shark-smart tips” to both dispel some myths and keep both humans and sharks safe.

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“I think it might be obvious that I’m a huge shark lover and I’ve always been very passionate about shark research, conservation and education,” she told Global News.

“But the specific goal for this project was inspired by a lot of the headlines that I was reading about the amount of great white sharks that we were tracking in Atlantic Canada and right here in Nova Scotia, which is very, very exciting.”

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She said she realized there was a difference between “a planned and unplanned interaction” and she wanted to help people with the latter scenario.

“I wanted to address the potential gap in terms of communicating, ‘Well, what should you do if you do encounter a shark and how do you even decrease the odds of that happening?’” Schiliro explained.

Shark attacks are still incredibly rare.

According to Shark Attack Data and International Shark Attack File — two databases compiled by researchers worldwide — only two documented shark attacks have occurred in Nova Scotia: a fatal attack in 1891, and a non-fatal incident in 2021.

In the August 2021 encounter, RCMP at the time said a 21-year-old woman suffered serious injuries in a suspected shark attack in waters near Margaree Island, off western Cape Breton.

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‘Be mindful’

The busiest season for great white sharks in Atlantic Canadian waters is July to November.

Schiliro said it’s important to note that the sharks are mostly coming to the area to feed on seals.

Warmer waters due to climate change and increased seal populations can also be driving the increase in shark activity.

Being shark-aware includes planning what to wear, places to stay away from, and times of day to avoid going into the water.

When it comes to clothing, it’s recommended to keep away from contrasting colours and shiny jewelry — both of which pique their interest.

“It’s also a good idea if you spot a large group of seals nearby to use that to inform your judgment. ‘Should I be getting into the water here swimming, surfing or diving?’ That’ll be step number one and staying safe,” she said.

“Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’re about to get into the water or are already in the water, it’s not a bad idea just to be mindful that there could be sharks around and to just conduct periodic scans of what’s around you just so that you can spot whatever might be around you and react in a timely manner.”

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Being vigilant could also mean going out in groups while surfing and swimming.

“Having fun with buddies is a great idea just to avoid this kind of encounter.”

Potential shark attractants include animal remains, seal colonies or areas where there are active fish. Those are places to avoid.

As well, sharks are known to like to hang out in drop-off areas or river mouths.

Timing is important too.

“White sharks like to hunt during dawn and dusk, so perhaps avoiding any activities during those times could be a good idea as well,” Schiliro said.

“Murky and overcast conditions can challenge your ability to spot what’s around you, so I wouldn’t recommend conducting activities around those times as well.”

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What if you encounter a shark?

So, what do you do if you end up encountering a shark?

First of all stay calm.

Make eye contact to let the shark know you see it, and avoid erratic movement.

“Frantic movements and excessive splashing can mimic scared prey and stimulate the shark,” Schiliro wrote on the infographic.

At this point, you should create a buffer space — using a surfboard, for example — and observe the shark’s behaviour.

Circling and fast bursts of speed can be signs the shark is “stressed.”

The advice at this stage is to exit the water calmly, with low energy and noise.

If the situation warrants striking the shark, Schiliro said it’s important not to aim for the nose.

In fact, gills or eyes are more sensitive — and aiming for the nose also means you’re closer to its mouth.

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Overall, Schiliro said she hopes getting the information out there will encourage people to think more about shark safety.

“Get people to think of it like we do as bear safety or other wild animals safety, because ultimately when we’re entering the ocean, we’re entering their environment,” she said.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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