WITH shark attacks and encounters on the rise in the US, one expert has issued some potentially life-saving advice for anyone who crosses paths with the apex predators while swimming in the sea this summer.
Richard Weddle, Curator at the New Jersey SEA LIFE Aquarium in East Rutherford, told The US Sun the key to escaping any such encounter unscathed lies with your ability to remain calm.
“If you move very rapidly or very chaotically [the shark] might panic and start to swim in a very dangerous fashion,” Weddle warned.
“Shark skin is very rough, so even just a shark bumping against you when it’s swimming quite fast can cause abrasions and cuts that can cause a serious injury.
“A chaotic motion will often scare a shark, but depending on the species it may also attract them [and cause them to attack].
“They might think you’re an animal struggling, but overall it’s just not good in any situation to panic like that in the water.”
Instead, should you spot a shark in the area when you’re swimming, Weddle advises that you turn around very slowly and calmly walk or swim your way back to shore.
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“Get out of the water for a little while and let the shark go about its business,” he added.
“I guarantee it’s not there to harass you, it just wants to live its shark life.”
Other important tips to consider are only swimming in areas of the beach where lifeguards are present, because “lifeguards are specifically trained to spot sharks and other dangers when you’re swimming,” he said.
To further safeguard yourself, you can also check apps like Sharktivity to see if any shark sightings have been recently reported in the area you’re seeking to swim.
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SHARK ATTACK SPIKE
Weddle’s warning comes amid an uptick in sightings and attacks across the US – particularly along northeastern shores.
At least half a dozen attacks have occurred in the Northeast since June 30 and elsewhere beaches are being closed or closely monitored as fears of additional shark attacks rise.
There has been a particular spike in sightings and attacks off the coast of Long Island, with four injured by suspected shark attacks in July after three years of no attacks at all.
According to Weddle, the coastline of New York and New Jersey have always been important habitats for various shark species.
“There are several species that actually have nurseries here, wherever females will come to have their babies, and the young find shelter and food and protection from larger predators,” Weddle explained.
“So sharks like great whites, sand tigers, and sand sharks are found in this area, particularly in the summer.”
As for the reason behind the spate of attacks in the Northeast, Weddle is unsure of the specific cause.
But pointing out that most of the attacks have been non-fatal and most of the sightings have been nonincidental, there are a number of potential explanations behind the seeming increase in shark activity.
One such factor could be climate change, according to Weddle.
While there is no data to suggest climate change is responsible for luring sharks closer to the shore, there may be other factors in which warmer waters cause sharks to venture near human beings.
The majority of marine life existing beneath the surface of the water is tied to specific ranges of temperature.
This means that certain species will alter their locations as conditions change.
Sharks, for instance, tend to prefer cooler waters, so it’s possible that they may be traveling further north earlier in the year in search of colder, more desirable temperatures.
The behavior of the prey sharks hunt is also changing as ocean waters heat up, causing the prolific predators to follow them.
Additionally, efforts to clear up waterways in major port cities have also resulted in cleaner waters, leading to a rebound in marine life.
“Sharks will definitely follow prey, so if the prey is closer ensure sharks will be nearby,” said Weddle.
Crucially, Weddle says it’s important to remember that sharks do not typically want to attack humans, and the vast majority of biting incidents involving swimmers and surfers are often the result of an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.
Once the shark determines that the human isn’t what they want to eat and isn’t part of their diet, typically they swim away.
Weddle explains: “So most sharks eat fish, some will also eat marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and so on.
“We do not taste anything like fish or marine mammals, so very often …something like a surfer on the surface of the water or a swimmer from below may look like a marine mammal and a shark will take a bite, and then realize it’s not food, and swim away.
“But for some of the larger species, though, that single bite can be quite damaging.”
In a worst-case scenario, should someone get bitten, Weddle says it is essential to get the victim out of the water as quickly as possible and apply emergency aid until paramedics arrive.
“You have to control the blood loss,” he added, stressing the danger of bleeding out after a severe bite is significant.
SAVE THE SHARKS
However, the marine biologist stresses that sharks are not the bloodthirsty monsters their depicted to be in films and tv – and protecting them, rather than villanizing them is of optimum importance.
“Sharks are apex predators which means they’re top of their food web, and in that role, they’re critically important to the stability of that food web, helping to maintain populations of their prey, and eliminating sick and injured individuals too,” Weddle said.
“They play a very, very important role.
“And sharks are also very slow to reproduce, they take a long time to reach sexual maturity, they can be pregnant for nine to 12 months, they give birth to a small number of pups, so they don’t recover very quickly from being overfished.
“So it’s very important that we protect them,” he added.
“Shark populations have been declining quite rapidly and for a number of species… I would say for 60% of the species in the US, we have no idea exactly what the numbers are like.
“And for the ones that we do know, the declines have been pretty significant, so shark conservation has become a pretty important topic.”
Weddle continued: “It’s very difficult to predict what the effects will be [if shark populations continue to decline], there will certainly be significant changes to food chains.
“There could be an explosion of certain species that are no longer being preyed upon by the sharks, and in turn, those species feed on other things, which could then be driven close to extinction.
“If you change even just one thing on a food web, the knock-on effects are sometimes hard to predict, but they’re always pretty significant.”
The US Sun visited Weddle at the New Jersey SEA LIFE Aquarium earlier this week as the attraction, which opened in the spring of last year, celebrated Shark Week.
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The aquarium is home to 15 sharks – and seven different species – varying from baby Epaulette sharks, right up to an eight-foot-long nursing shark that weighs an estimated 250 pounds.
To learn more about SEA LIFE, click here.