Updated: Aug 12, 2022
One of the most common fears in surfers is sharks. I’ve never met anyone that actually wants to go surfing with sharks. The reality is surfers should be waaayyy more worried about the conditions of the ocean vs. running into a shark. Even I, an experienced shark diver, still isn’t stoked on the idea of bumping into one while on my board. The other day I got the chance to have my moment surfing with sharks.
After spending a few hours catching waves on the North Shore of Oahu I was sitting on my board when I noticed something out a few yards ahead of my friends and I. Now I’ve seen some really cool animals at this particular spot! A few months back there was a manta ray cruising close to the surface that I initially thought was a shark.
Even though I was pretty sure of what I saw I wasn’t about to jump to conclusions.
Would you want to admit the reality that there was a shark hanging around while you had been surfing? So I waited until I could confirm my suspicions before making any sudden decisions.
The dorsal broke the surface a second time and I knew for sure what I saw. Based on the shape and size I am pretty sure it was a small tiger shark. I called out to my friends that were sitting close by to let them know that a shark was close. I calmly told them to come paddle close together and head a little closer into shore.
We ended up staying in shallower water riding small waves for another hour or so. That shark was probably there the whole time we were out and we were definitely surfing with sharks. The chance that it would’ve actually approached us is really low. However, I decided why risk it. After all, if something bad had happened the shark would’ve gotten the blame and they don’t need anymore negative press.
As we paddled in we let some surfers heading out know we had seen a shark. We wanted to tell them so they could make an educated decision about whether they wanted to continue their session or not. A few turned back towards the beach but others still continued their paddle out.
ADVICE FOR SURFERS REGARDING SHARKS
1. Don’t look like prey. Appear active.
Most shark bites are due to misidentification. Sharks see the silhouette of the board at the surface and assume it to be an injured turtle or seal. Sharks prefer to eat things that are sick or injured. One way you can avoid looking like an injured animal floating at the surface is by occasionally turning your board while in the lineup. Even though you may not actually be looking around, by moving the board in different directions you appear to be more aware of your surroundings, which is more characteristic of a predator.
I’ve heard from some people that painting a large eye on the bottom of your board can help as eye contact is also important in looking like a predator.
Avoid surfing in areas where you are more likely to be confused as prey. For example, if it is seal pupping season it would be wise to not surf at a pupping site where sharks are more than likely already patrolling the area looking for prey.
Even though the lineup might be crowded there is strength in numbers. No shame in hanging out close to your buddies or fellow surfers.
2. Don’t smell like prey.
When there are heavy rains or when the tide is switching from high to low it is wise to avoid surfing next to river mouths or outside harbors. Often times rivers run through agricultural land and the rain flushes animal and other scents out into the ocean. Similarly, as the tide moves out scents in the harbor get flushed into the surrounding area. Many fishermen dump their scraps from cleaning fish into harbors so it’s possible that scent could make its way out into the lineup.
3. Use your judgement.
If you know the water is murky or you’ve heard there has been some shark sightings recently use your personal judgement on whether or not you feel comfortable paddling out. While the probability of having an adverse shark encounter while surfing is extremely low. Falling coconuts kill more people every year than sharks. It is up to you to take the responsibility of choosing to get in their home, the ocean.
Understand that sharks are not out actively searching for people to mess with, they aren’t man eating monsters, but they are still apex predators.
If you are out on the water and see a shark, it is up to you whether you want to continue enjoying the waves. If you aren’t comfortable staying in, catch the next wave into the beach or get close with your buddies and paddle in together. Surfing with sharks isn’t such a scary idea when you understand ways to enjoy the ocean and coexist.
Read about the 5 most common questions I get asked about sharks
Photo credit: @maddiejooste @mads_and_rads