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Can I Survive a Shark Attack by Gouging Out Its Eyes?

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Ah, the beach — sandy refuge where people lounge, wearing little more covering than cocktail napkins. We flock to these warm havens to soak in the sun, read trashy novels and eat piles of cheese curls and chocolate chip cookies without a care in the world. That is, until we step into the water.

If there’s one major party pooper on beaches around the world, it’s the shark. Once we step off of dry land, we must keep a watchful eye out for nipping crabs, stinging jellyfish and of course the telltale fins protruding from the water’s surface. Almost everyone has at least a mild case of selacophobia, or an abnormal fear of sharks. Fretting over the possibility of that silent approach and swift attack is probably one of the greatest downers from our fun in the sun.


Shark attacks happen in the waters off every continent, except Antarctica, with the U.S. topping the list. Nevertheless, the odds of being a shark attack victim are incredibly slim, but it happens. Every year, the International Shark Attack File compiles the reported human-shark incidents around the globe. In 2019, it recorded 64 unprovoked attacks, 41 provoked attacks and 12 boat attacks; five of those attacks were fatal [source: International Shark Attack File].

Let’s say you’re one of the select few that a shark spots in the water and decides to sample. Do people have any hope against the highest link in the aquatic food chain? In a majority of cases, that answer is yes.

Most shark attack victims will survive the encounter [source: Parker]. Reasons could be because a shark approached and decided not to pursue, it took a bite and left, or the person was able to physically fend it off.

In the event you come to blows with a shark, where should you hit or kick it? And are there other things you should do before giving a shark a knuckle sandwich? Find out on the next page.


Poking Sharks’ Eyes and Noses

So the question remains, when a shark attacks, do you fight back? Generally, you want to escape quickly and quietly before a shark makes contact. If you can’t swim to safety, and the shark bites, it’s time for the gloves to come off. When possible, hit it with something other than your hands or feet (like a fishing pole or a stick) because you risk losing a limb. Showing aggression like this will help you escape because a shark will often not want to pursue prey if it must spend a ton of energy wrestling it [source: National Geographic Survivor].

Many shark attack resources recommend going for the eyes and the gills because these are the most sensitive parts of a shark’s body. By striking the eyes, you aren’t trying to blind it but rather stun the shark into swimming away.


But in the heat of the moment, unless you’re directly facing an eyeball, it may be too difficult to focus and strike at such a specific target. Also, maneuvering around a shark’s mouth to get to the eyes could get your hand bitten off. Your position in the water also determines how successfully you can strike. If you’re swimming on top of the water and a shark comes at you from below, gouging out the eye will prove challenging.

Instead, shark expert George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File advises walloping a shark’s nose for the same effect [source: USA Today]. Shark studies have even found that touching a shark’s snout can cause it to halt mid-motion and not attack. The reason could be the tiny electrical receptors called ampullae of Lorenzini that speckle the area around sharks’ noses and mouths. The pores are filled with electrically conductive jelly that catches any changes in the electrical currents around the fish. Hitting sharks’ faces may disrupt that unique sense, resulting in an unpleasant sensation.

Once you fend off the shark, remember that particularly aggressive ones will return for a second round. For that reason, after you free yourself from a shark’s grip, try to swim away quickly without a lot of splashing — splashing will continue to attract the bully.

Above all, try to stay calm. Though hand-to-fin combat with a shark probably sounds like a nightmare, the odds are on your side. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 90 percent of shark attack victims swim away with minor injuries [source: NOAA].

For more information about sharks and ocean safety, visit the links that follow.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Top 10 Shark Attack Stories

How Shark Attacks Work

How Sharks Work

Five Most Dangerous Sharks

What do most sharks eat?

How Bull Sharks Work

How Tiger Sharks Work

How Nurse Sharks Work

How do sharks see, smell and hear?

Why do people collect shark teeth?

Could shark cartilage help cure cancer?

15 Tips for Surviving a Shark Attack

More Great Links

International Shark Attack File

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week

Florida Museum of Natural History — Ichthyology Department


Allen, Thomas B. “Shark Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.” Globe Pequot. 2001. (June 5, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=O8qJf3QnEZ4C

Burgess, George H. “How, When, Where Sharks Attack.” Florida Museum of Natural History Ichthyology Department. (June 5, 2008)http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/attacks/howwhen.htm

Dingerkus, Guido. “The Shark Watchers’ Guide.” Wanderer Books. 1985.

Discovery Channel. “Sea Survival — Sharks.” (June 5, 2008)http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/survival/guide/environment/sea/sea_07.html

Lineaweaver, Thomas H. “The Natural History of Sharks.” Nick Lyons Books/Schocken Books. 1970.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Shark Attack News Conference.” Transcript. May 21, 2002. (June 5, 2008)http://www.connectlive.com/events/seagrant/transcript.html

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Shark Species.” (June 5, 2008)http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sharks/FSCommonencounter.htm

Parker, Jane and Parker, Steve. “The Encyclopedia of Sharks.” Firefly Books. 2002.

USA Today. “Travel: Shark expert George Burgess.” May 20, 2003. (June 5, 2008)http://cgi1.usatoday.com/mchat/20030520003/tscript.htm

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