The human body has, on average, between 4.5 to 5.5 litres of blood. The greatest risk that comes from a shark attack is that of bleeding out. You can bleed out from an amputated limb in under 5 minutes. So this is the first priority when it comes to first aid after a shark attack.
How to survive a shark attack
If you feel something nudge or brush past you, it would be better to make your exit from the water, quickly and calmly, rather than stick around to investigate. Sharks are known to sometimes bump their prey before attacking. Get to shore as quickly as you can, while sending out the alarm to anyone else in the water. Alert the lifeguard.
Sharks can sense fear. Despite it being easier said than done, try not to panic. If a shark heads straight for you, turn and face it. Tread water so you’re in a vertical formation. By remaining vertical in the water, you’ll appear less like the shark’s regular prey, e.g. a seal, which is more often recognised as horizontal in the water.
When a shark is intent on attacking you, you can’t turn and run. Your best option is to focus your attention on the shark, so you can at least be ready to take some defensive action. Grab any available weapon, such as a paddle or a diving knife, ready to strike at its eyes and gills. If you have no weapon, you’ll need to gouge at these vulnerable areas using your hands. Striking the snout is another sensitive spot that could be sufficient discouragement.
If you do suffer a bite, apply pressure directly to the wound to stop the bleeding. Try to swim on your back in an effort to leave the water as quickly as possible. Once you’re out of the water, make sure others are warned, and seek first aid assistance if available. Call 000 for emergency help. If there is no one around that can help you, follow the steps below on how to treat a shark bite.
If you begin to feel faint, lay on your side (aka the ‘recovery position’). This way, if you lose consciousness, your airway will remain open and not blocked off.
What to do when you witness a shark attack?
Alert a lifeguard. Call 000 immediately. Make sure others are warned.
Rescue attempts are best by boat. Do not put yourself at risk if no lifeguard or boat is available.
Help the victim out of the water as soon as it is safe to do so.
Quickly check the neck, thighs and arms to locate the sources of any bleeding.
How to treat a shark bite
Dial 000 for medical assistance.
If there’s an arterial bleed — where blood is spurting from the inside thigh, upper arm or leg — it will need to be quickly contained to avoid both shock and bleeding out.
Severe bleeding is life-threatening and takes priority over airway and breathing and needs to be controlled immediately.
Apply pressure directly to the wound. If pressure is not enough to control the bleeding, a tourniquet may need to be improvised.
Keep the person still and wrap them in towels for warmth, in case of shock.
How to improvise a tourniquet
A tourniquet is used to control bleeding to an injured limb. It is a tight band that is used to stop or severely reduce the flow of blood around a wound.
You can improvise a tourniquet, using a strap, a belt with a buckle, surfboard leg rope or something similar.
A towel would be your last resort for making an improvised tourniquet because, like a sponge, it would tend to draw blood out of your body.
Make sure your tourniquet is applied high and horizontal, and wind it tightly.
After applying a tourniquet, use a shirt or something similar to pack the wound and help stop the blood flow.
These first aid tips could help save yourself or someone else from becoming a fatality after a shark attack.
How to minimise the risk of a shark attack
- Swim in areas with lifeguards on duty and in areas protected by shark nets. Swim, dive and surf with other people. Do not swim where people are fishing or spear fishing. Do not swim with pets.
- Avoid being in the water at dawn, dusk, and at night, when sharks are more active.
- Like most predators, sharks gravitate to where food is plentiful. Avoid swimming at the mouth of a river or near seabirds, seals, or fishing boats.
- Avoid murky water. Curious sharks resort to their mouths to sample the objects of their curiosity.
- Avoid deep channels and other likely shark-friendly habitats.
- Sharks see contrast well, so high-contrast clothing and shiny jewellery may attract them, as does splashing around.
- Stay out of the water in typical shark feeding territories.
Calm As First Aid kit
Dr Cohen is the doctor behind the Calm As Shark Bite First Aid Slam Pack — a small waterproof knapsack that is easy to carry. It contains essential first aid items and a tea towel-sized piece of fabric with instructions.
The kit is designed for immediate action to achieve just one goal: stop the victim from bleeding out.
A tourniquet “is the holy grail in terms of preventing loss of life”, according to Dr. Jon Cohen, a member of Surfing Doctors with advanced training in Emergency Medicine.
“Once the tourniquet’s on,” he says, “you’ve got at least 3 hours… probably more before the tourniquet starts to damage the victim. It’s the simplest thing you can do to save someone’s life.”
Other Shark Attack Resources
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, replace, or qualify as any form of first aid training.