Can You Fight a Shark and Win?

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If the film Jaws is any indication, the best way to fight a shark is to shove a pressurized scuba tank in its mouth, climb into your ship’s crow’s nest, and shoot the tank from a distance, making the shark explode into a million pieces. If you’re like me and don’t swim in the ocean with an air tank, gun, or lust for blood, you still have other options.

How common are shark attacks?

To quell some fears upfront: Shark attacks are not common. According to the Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File, there were only 73 unprovoked shark bites on humans across the entire world in 2021. You’re nearly ten times more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to get attacked by a shark.

But even though the risk of getting attacked by a shark is low, it’s not zero. That’s why I spoke to shark expert Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou from Florida International University to learn what exactly you should do if you ever come face-to-fin with a prehistoric ocean dinosaur.

Dr. Papastamatiou explained that the context in which you come across the shark is important. “The majority of shark encounters are not aggressive. The main thing you want to do is stand your ground and keep your eye on [it]. You do not want to run and start fleeing.” He elaborated that you want to make sure the shark knows about your presence in a way that’s not alarming, if possible.

Should you punch a shark in the nose?

When I asked about the old advice about punching a shark in the nose, Papastamatiou explained that there’s no legitimacy to that strategy. “There’s no magic spot,” he said. “If the animal is being aggressive, you should fight back, pushing and striking as much as you can. But you should avoid the mouth area,” for obvious reason.

What’s the best way to win?

Papastamatiou explained that, if anything, you should “aim more towards the gills.” In the heat of the moment, though, aiming for a particular region on the shark’s body may not be possible, so ultimately it’s important to just land as many blows as you can, wherever you can. Sharks tend to strike quickly, so the likelihood is that the encounter will be over sooner than you’ll realize. And then, if you’ve been bitten, get to dry land as fast as possible for help.

Ultimately, the idea of “winning” a fight against a shark really just means that you survived with as few injuries as possible. But chances are that you won’t find yourself in that situation to begin with. If you do find yourself encountering a shark in the wild, keep calm, and the overwhelming odds are that you’ll be just fine.

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