How to swim with sharks
— Voltaire Cousteau (Paris 1812)
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
that 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 assume
that this initial determination has already been made. If the
waters were clearly not shark infested, this would be of little
interest or value. If the waters were shark infested, the naive
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 UNIDENTIFIED FISH ARE SHARKS. Not all sharks
look like sharks, and some fish which 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
which 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. The hemostatic reflex 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 questioning 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
recognizes 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 clear that you understand the
shark’s intentions and are prepared to use whatever force is
necessary to repel his 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
- GET OUT 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 or sharks. Some are so inept that in the
confusion they injure themselves.
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
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 take 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
- DISORGANIZE AN 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 not of particular concern to a
swimmer, it is essential that one know how to handle 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 especially prone to internal dissension. An experienced
swimmer can divert an organized attack by introducing something,
often something 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
which so enrages the members of the group that they begin to lash
out in all directions, even attacking inanimate objects in their
What should be introduced? Unfortunately, different things
prompt internal dissension or 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 they fall under
a concerted attack.
This page was last updated August 1, 1998.