Shark attack: What would you do?

Imagine yourself on holiday bathing at dusk at the end of a long hot day on the beach. The water’s calm. You’re enjoying the quiet, away from the crowds, about 40m from shore. You’re a strong swimmer and you’re fit. Suddenly a large dark shape appears in the water close by. A large shark starts circling you.

Looking up at a large shark swimming just under the surface of the water

Photo: Shutterstock

What do you do next?

A) Swim as fast as you can to shore.

B) Stay calm, and make sure you keep facing the animal.

C) Bash it on the nose.

Expert answer

From Dr Yannis Papastamatiou, Masts Research Fellow, University of St Andrews

'Most incidents between sharks and swimmers consist of a sudden strike, and the shark is not seen beforehand. So if you do see the shark, then the chances are that it won’t pay much attention to you.

'The majority of interactions between humans and sharks are not predatory. You should be able to move away slowly. There are a few large species that may very occasionally be evaluating you as potential prey (but this is very rare).

'If it starts circling you should be extra cautious and do not act like prey. Try your best to maintain visual contact with the animal and to not let it get behind you. Slowly make your way out of the water, maintaining eye contact. Only start fighting if it actually goes for you.'

To reduce your chances of being attacked in the first place:

  • Swim in groups, close to the shore.
  • Swim on beaches with shark spotters or lifeguards.
  • Avoid swimming at dawn or dusk or during the night in general.
  • Don’t go in if you’re bleeding from an open wound.
  • Don’t wear shiny jewellery, resembling fish scales.
  • Avoid areas with anglers, particularly if there are any signs of bait fish.
  • Look out between sandbars or near steep drop-offs and areas close to river mouths – the favourite hangouts of sharks.


  • We’re more dangerous to sharks than they are to us. On average 100M sharks a year are killed by human activities. Almost a quarter of shark species are facing extinction, with commercial fishing being the main threat
  • It’s a myth that sightings of porpoises mean there are no sharks around. They can be around at the same time as they eat the same food. In fact some sharks eat porpoises.
  • Sharks do not have poor vision. Their vision’s pretty good and well adapted for seeing under low levels of light.

For more good advice ...

Respect the Water, and get safety advice for your sport or hobby on the RNLI website.

Or check out the Marine Conservation Society for more on protecting the shark's natural habitat.