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How to Survive the Shark Attack That Is Never Going to Happen To You

No, seriously, you are not going to be attacked by a shark

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Unless you haven’t been paying attention to the television or internet, you’re probably at least dimly aware that it’s Shark Week on Discovery Channel. Shark Week has built much of its legacy on talking about shark attacks. So, what should you do if attacked by a shark?

Well, the first thing to know is that the chances of this happening are pretty slim. No, seriously, you are not going to be attacked by a shark.

According to the International Shark Attack File, the chances that you will be killed by a shark are one in 3.8 million. And most shark bites are the case of mistaken identity. The shark bites, thinking you’re food, and when it realizes you’re not, it lets go, leaving a cut but little else behind. But let’s say that for some reason (again, likely due to user error), you do wind up under sustained shark attack.

You might have heard that you should punch the shark in the nose. This is probably not a good idea, says David Shiffman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy studying shark ecology and conservation. (Shiffman has been answering people’s questions about sharks on Twitter for years, so if you have questions, find him there.)

In many situations in which large predators are attacking you, the advice is to “play dead.” This doesn’t work against sharks. Also, it’s hard to do in the water without actually drowning to death. If you really are under attack, here’s what Shiffman advises:

In the extremely rare instance of a prolonged negative encounter, the stereotypical advice is to punch the shark on the nose. Have you ever tried punching underwater? It doesn’t work very well. As with all animal attacks, the best advice is to go for the eye. If you poke something in the eye, it will stop what it is doing. Sharks have a protective eyelid-like barrier called a nictitating membrane, but it’s designed to protect from a thrashing fish caught in that shark’s jaws and not from fingers.

This worked for Scott Stephens, who was dragged under by a shark while surfing. He writes in Outside:

I was about two feet below the surface when I opened my eyes. That was the first time I’ve seen a shark in the water in 15 years of surfing. It had my left torso and I was staring right into its eyes for a second. It was like we had a connection. It had a huge eye and teeth, which were just so snaggled, almost like it was smiling. I estimated it was about four feet from the tip of the nose to the dorsal fin. I felt one really violent shake as the shark moved its head side to side, like a dog with a toy. I was able to torque my body and punch it behind its right eye. It immediately let me go and swam down and toward shore.

The better thing to do is avoid being attacked by a shark in the first place. (Which, once again, is highly unlikely.) “More people are killed by things like flowerpots, lawn mowers, toaster ovens, deer, cows, and dogs each year. More people are bitten by other people than by sharks,” Shiffman says.

So, should you happen to encounter a shark who is confused and thinks you might be tasty, go for the eyes. This works on humans too, but that kind of attack is far more likely.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Secrets of a Shark Attack
The Jersey Shore Shark Attack

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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