With the sensationalism of the shark attacks on the Carolina coast it seems like everyone is on the lookout. Social media adds to the drama and we often get calls from reporters about sightings that they hear about. There was a good one floating around recently about a huge Great White that was caught swimming about a mile from Galveston’s shoreline. Turns out it was a Mako caught off of Nova Scotia during a fishing tournament several years ago. But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?
You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 6 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty good… for the swimmers.
There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal from below.
Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:
- Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
- Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them they won’t try to fight back.
- Don’t swim while bleeding- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.
Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.