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Surfer killed in shark attack; expert gives survival tips

October 24, 2012 |  4:00 am

Tuesday's fatal shark attack in Santa Barbara County -- the third fatal shark attack in California in the last four years -- has prompted a renewed interest in beach and water safety on West Coast beaches.

But while the number of shark sightings and  attacks have increased in recent years, some oceanography experts stressed that shark aggression toward humans remains remarkably rare.

"These are freak accidents," said Andrew Nosal, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Most attacks, Nosal said, are either cases of "mistaken identity" -- in which the shark mistakes a surfer or body boarder for a seal or sea lion -- or are test bites by the shark trying to figure out what it's chomping.

But, he stressed, there are far fewer attacks than sightings by those who spot them in the water. If you do see a shark while in the ocean, here's how Nosal says you should react:

Swim calmly toward the shore: If you see a shark in the water and you are not in a boat, the safest move is to calmly put distance between yourself and the shark. "Most of the time during shark sightings, nothing happens," Nosal said. "But there is no harm in being cautious and getting to shore."

Don't act frantically or turn your back on the shark: As you exit the water, it is important to remain calm and stay abreast of the shark's location. Even if the shark is not behaving aggressively, it's important to know if it is still in the area or if it is following you toward shore. "The last thing you want to do is start frantically swimming away from it," Nosal said. "Sharks are used to prey flailing and trying to swim away from it as fast as possible. You don't want to act that way."

If the shark shows aggression, hit it: Sharks are not used to prey that fights back, so hitting a shark will usually startle it enough to scare it away. "The last thing a shark is expecting is for you to fight back," Nosal said. "A good hit to the nose, eyes or gills should be enough to send it swimming away."

Report the sighting: Even if the shark was not aggressive toward you, Nosal said it is important to tell the appropriate authorities so that shark sighting warnings can be posted on the beach.

Most importantly, Nosal said, keep in mind that shark attacks are relatively rare.

"It's OK to have a healthy respect for these sharks, but we shouldn't fear them any more than we do getting into our cars every day." he said.


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