Sharks are just another part of life for surfers, and most of the time, sharks are an out-of-sight, out-of-mind concern. So when recent world longboard champion Joel Tudor and former tour surfer Shea Lopez recently warned people to stay out of the water in Cardiff (North County, San Diego) it was time to take a deeper look.
Just how risky is surfing in Southern California, really? Is a fear of sharks justified or is it completely irrational? And, since there have been several recent sightings, what can be done to minimize the risk of an adverse shark interaction before paddling out?
Statistically, the chances of being killed by a shark are extremely low, and the risk of being attacked at all is lower than it was in the 1950s, but this isn’t to say surfers shouldn’t exercise caution while playing — and sharing — the wild environment they love the most.
According to Ocean Ramsey, the marine biologist and free diver whose life work revolves around saving sharks, if even just one dorsal fin is spotted from any distance, everyone should exit the water immediately for a minimum of two days.
Though the odds of encountering a shark are slim, the risk is, unfortunately, undeniable. And for surfers, that risk is even higher than it is for the average person. Multiple people have been fatally attacked while surfing in Santa Barbara. A few years ago, surfer and shaper Ben Kelly was killed while surfing near Santa Cruz. Almost every year, shark attacks occur on the Western Australian coast, but in 2017, 53 of the world’s 88 confirmed unprovoked attacks took place on U.S. coastlines. There is a known history of shark sightings in Orange County, specifically at popular surf spots like Trestles.
But no matter how many warnings are issued or how many shark attacks occur, if there’s one thing we know about surfers, it’s that the only thing capable of keeping them out of the water is a flat spell.
If surfers are going to surf regardless of the presence of sharks, what can be done to minimize this inherent risk? As it turns out, there are plenty of risk management tips and techniques that, combined with the low statistical odds of a dangerous shark encounter, serve to eliminate most fears about getting in the ocean.
Funny enough, most surfers already practice risk management techniques without even consciously realizing it. Simple practices such as scanning the shore for landmarks to line up with while in the water, researching spots and their hazards before surfing, doing the stingray shuffle, and checking the forecast for the swell, winds, and tides are all great examples of risk management habits.
But, with shark safety in mind, there are a few more habits any seasoned surfer may want to add to their roster. Even if you won’t use every technique during every session, you can store a little knowledge in your back pocket.
As it turns out, surfing in a group is a good way of minimizing your chances of a shark interaction. When possible, try to avoid being the farthest one out in the lineup. Sorry, longboarders. This is because where the bigger sets hit is also where sharks tend to prey, because the ocean floor often drops off in these sections.
Speaking of board choice, longboarders do have one leg up here in terms of safety: the bigger the board, the slimmer the chances of a shark attack. Sharks are less likely to attack something bigger than them. But, shortboarders need not be discouraged. Painting eyes on the bottom of a surfboard is a great way to give a shark a fake out and scare it away. Plus, adding a little art never hurt anyone!
Sharks are drawn to high contrast areas, so the color of your wetsuit makes a difference, too.
There are a few more things you can do to reduce your chances of a shark bite before heading out. Picking the right spot is a solid way to mitigate risk. Avoiding fishing areas, river mouths, harbors, piers, and storm drains further minimizes the likelihood of a shark encounter.
But piers and river mouths often have great waves, so if you do choose to surf at one of these locations, there are still ways to go with safety in mind.
The time of day one surfs is arguably just as crucial as the spot itself. The better and brighter the light, the safer you are from being mistaken for a seal. The dim light of the early morning and evening is the worst time to be out. Yes, these times of day often produce the glassiest conditions, but no one is saying you shouldn’t go at all. It’s just something to keep in mind.
If you do choose a riskier break, research the area for recent shark activity. This can help you gauge your chances of encountering a shark and inform your decision about whether or not to go.
Once you’ve chosen when and where you’re surfing, there are a few things you can do while you’re out there. A fun practice to include in between rides is to watch for wildlife! Feeding zones for birds and fish often means feeding zones for other animals, too. So, if you want to avoid places where sharks feed, watch where the birds are diving.
And, it goes without saying: don’t act like a fish. Minimizing excessive splashing or paddling as much as possible is not only the ticket to a more stylish ride, but a great way to avoid shark attacks.
If a shark attack does occur, owning a tourniquet can be the difference between an unfortunate encounter and a fatality.
All of this is to say, get out there and surf, but go armed with the knowledge to stay as safe as possible while you are enjoying nature’s playground. Sharks are fascinating creatures, so if you are lucky enough to spot a shark, cherish the sighting – just hopefully not from the water!
Learn more about sharks in Ocean Ramsey’s Guide to Sharks and Safety.