'Golden rules' for safe swimming with sharks

By Cassandra Mason

Photo / Fiona Ayerst
Photo / Fiona Ayerst

Shark scientist Riley Elliott says people can swim with sharks without being attacked - they just have to know how.

While spearheading the most "robust" shark tagging exercise in South Pacific history, Elliott is also involved in research aimed at teaching people how to swim safely in shark territory.

"We're not only working on research, we're working on strategies to avoid adverse interactions," he says.

Elliott says there are three "golden rules" in the water that people can follow if they want to stay safe.

Firstly, eye contact with the shark will let it know it's been spotted and foil any chance of a surprise attack - their natural feeding strategy.

Because this can't be done in murky water, swimming in clear water is rule number two.

Thirdly, being relaxed and calm in your movements is important because sharks can pick up on the body's electrical signals. Advice to splash on the water's surface is "ridiculous" and misleading, Elliott says.

"When you are surfing or ocean swimming, you are actively breaking all of these rules in the worst possible ways. No visibility, no eyesight and high heart rates."

The reason there are so few attacks worldwide is testament to the shark's ability to distinguish between humans and their natural prey, he said.

Coastal protection enthusiast and surfer Sam Judd agrees that there's a big difference between making yourself vulnerable in shark territory and swimming with them safely.

And Judd, who was attacked by a tiger shark while surfing in the Galapagos Islands in 2007, knows first-hand.

"When I was attacked I was surfing in a sea lion colony. That's putting yourself in their territory and I knew that. You just have to make the decision whether you're going to put yourself in that position.

"You're at their house."

Judd escaped with 23 stitches and no bitterness about the incident. He is an now advocate for shark conservation, and has since swum with hundreds of sharks in different spots around the world.

"It was inspiring to swim with them in the Galapagos... there were hundreds of hammerheads and giant whale sharks just coming up and checking us out."

And he can't stress how important it is to protect them.

"Sharks are a really import part of the food chain and we all rely on that being balanced. And yet it's legal to fish them here in New Zealand."

Elliott hopes that by raising awareness about sharks and teaching people how to swim with them, public perception could be transformed from fear to appreciation.

Especially following the fatal attack on Adam Strange at Muriwai Beach last month.

"It's about making people get over this. How do we get back in the water?"

The more people know about sharks, the more they'll see there's a need to protect them. And with just a little more understanding, swimming with sharks could become an important part of New Zealand ecotourism, he said.

- NZ Herald

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