HOW TO SWIM WITH SHARKS: A PRIMER
Actually, nobody wants to swim with sharks. It is not
an acknowledged sport and it is neither enjoyable nor exhilarating. These
instructions are written primarily for the benefit of those, who, by virtue of
their occupation, find they must swim and find that the water is infested with
It is of obvious importance to learn that the waters
are shark infested before commencing to swim. It is safe to say that this
initial determination has already been made. If the waters were infested, the
na´ve swimmer is by now probably beyond help; at the very least, he has
doubtless lost any interest in learning how to swim with sharks.
Finally, swimming with sharks is like any other skill:
It cannot be learned from books alone; the novice must practice in order to
develop the skill. The following rules simply set forth the fundamental
principles which, if followed will make it possible to survive while becoming
expert through practice.
- Assume all unidentified fish
are sharks. Not all sharks look like sharks, and some fish that are not
sharks sometimes act like sharks. Unless you have witnessed docile behavior in
the presence of shed blood on more than one occasion, it is best to assume an
unknown species is a shark. Inexperienced swimmers have been badly mangled by
assuming that docile behavior in the absence of blood indicates that the fish
is not a shark.
- Do not bleed. It is a
cardinal principle that if you are injured, either by accident or by intent,
you must not bleed. Experience shows that bleeding prompts an even more
aggressive attack and will often provoke the participation of sharks that are
uninvolved or, as noted above, are usually docile.
- Admittedly, it is difficult not to
bleed when injured. Indeed, at first this may seem impossible. Diligent
practice, however, will permit the experienced swimmer to sustain a serious
laceration without bleeding and without even exhibiting any loss of composure.
This hemostatic reflect can, in part, be conditioned, but there may be
constitutional aspects as well. Those who cannot learn to control their
bleeding should not attempt to swim with sharks, for the peril is too great.
The control of bleeding has a
positive protective element for the swimmer. The shark will be confused as to
whether or not his attack has injured you and confusion is to the swimmer's
advantage. On the other hand, the shark may know he has injured you and be
puzzled as to why you do not bleed or show distress. This also has a profound
effect on sharks. They begin to question their own potency or, alternatively,
believe the swimmer to have supernatural powers.
- Counter any aggression
promptly. Sharks rarely attack a swimmer without warning. Usually there is
some tentative, exploratory aggressive action. It is important that the
swimmer recognize that this behavior is a prelude to an attack and takes
prompt and vigorous remedial action. The appropriate countermove is a sharp
blow to the nose. Almost invariably this will prevent a full-scale attack, for
it makes it clear that you understand the shark's intention and are prepared
to use whatever force is necessary to repel aggressive actions.
- Some swimmers mistakenly believe
that an ingratiating attitude will dispel an attack under these circumstances.
This is not correct; such a response provokes a shark attack. Those who hold
this erroneous view can usually be identified by their missing limb.
- Get out of the water if someone
is bleeding. If a swimmer (or shark) has been injured and is bleeding, get
out of the water promptly. The presence of blood and the thrashing of water
will elicit aggressive behavior even in the most docile of sharks. This latter
group, poorly skilled in attacking, often behaves irrationally and may attack
uninvolved swimmers and sharks. Some are so inept that, in the confusion, they
- No useful purpose is served in
attempting to rescue the injured swimmer. He either will or will not survive
the attack, and your intervention cannot protect him once blood has been shed.
Those who survive such an attack rarely venture to swim with sharks again, an
attitude which is readily understandable.
The lack of effective
countermeasures to a fully developed shark attack emphasizes the importance of
the earlier rules.
- Use anticipatory retaliation.
A constant danger to the skilled swimmer is that the sharks will forget that
he is skilled and may attack in error. Some sharks have notoriously poor
memories in this regard. This memory loss can be prevented by a program of
anticipatory retaliation. The skilled swimmer should engage in these
activities periodically and the periods should be less than the memory span of
the shark. Thus, it is not possible to state fixed intervals. The procedure
may need to be repeated frequently with forgetful sharks and need be done only
once for sharks with total recall.
- The procedure is essentially the
same as described under rule 3: a sharp blow to the nose. Here, however, the
blow is unexpected and serves to remind the shark that you are both alert and
unafraid. Swimmers should care not to injure the shark and draw blood during
this exercise for two reasons: First, sharks often bleed profusely, and this
leads to the chaotic situation described under rule 4. Second, if swimmers act
in this fashion, it may not be possible to distinguish swimmers from sharks.
Indeed, renegade swimmers are far worse than sharks, for none of the rules or
measures described here is effective in controlling their aggressive behavior.
- Disorganized and organized
attack. Usually sharks are sufficiently self-centered that they do not act
in concert against a swimmer. This lack of organization greatly reduces the
risk of swimming among sharks. However, upon occasion the sharks may launch a
coordinated attack upon a swimmer or even upon one of their number. While the
latter event is of no particular concern to swimmer, it is essential that one
know how to handle an organized shark attack directed against a swimmer.
The proper strategy is diversion. Sharks can be
diverted from their organized attack in one of two ways. First, sharks as a
group, are prone to internal dissension. An experienced swimmer can divert an
organized attack by introducing something, often minor or trivial, which sets
the sharks to fighting among themselves. Usually by the time the internal
conflict is settled the sharks cannot even recall what they were setting about
to do, much less get organized to do it.
A second mechanism of diversion is to introduce
something that so enrages the members of the group that they begin to lash out
in all directions, even attacking inanimate objects in their fury.
What should be introduced? Unfortunately, different
things prompt internal dissension of blind fury in different groups of sharks.
Here one must be experienced in dealing with a given group of sharks, for what
enrages one group will pass unnoted by another.
It is scarcely necessary to state that it is unethical
for a swimmer under attack by a group of sharks to counter the attack by
diverting them to another swimmer. It is, however, common to see this done by
novice swimmers and by sharks when under concerted attack.
*Little is known
about the author, who died in Paris in 1812. He may have been a descendant of
Francois Voltaire and an ancestor of Jacques Cousteau. Apparently this essay was
written for sponge divers. Because it may have broader implications, it was
translated from the French by Richard J. Johns, an obscure French scholar and
Massey Professor and director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, The
Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, 720 Rutland Avenue, Baltimore,
Biology and Medicine 1987;
We thank University of
Chicago Press for permission to reprint this article.