Chance encounters with sharks tend to increase as the start of summer brings more people into the water.
In the event of such an attack, experts have some very helpful recommendations on how bystanders can stabilize a victim of a shark attack.
“In terms of treatment, we treat shark bite injuries as we would any other trauma with hemorrhage,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“Pressure, tourniquet, minimize blood loss [and] treat for shock,” he added. “Speed is of the essence. Secondary concerns are infection.”
Many shark attacks occur close to the shore because sharks tend to feed on seals — which are near the shallows.
Sometimes it’s simply a case of mistaken identity when a shark bites a human, experts also note.
Apply pressure over a wound
“For life-threatening injuries, call 911,” said Nancy Strand, MPH, RN, a senior manager of surgical patient education in the Division of Education for the American College of Surgeons in the greater Chicago area.
“Then, applying pressure over a wound is effective in slowing and stopping bleeding, as is packing a deeper wound,” she added. “For severe wounds of the limbs, an effective way to stop bleeding is to apply a tourniquet.”
If the victim is still in the water, notify the beach patrol or lifeguard immediately, said Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association.
“Using a boat or other watercraft to approach [victims] is best,” he said. “Remember that a rescuer should always ensure the scene is safe to approach and always try to reach, throw or row to them — but do not enter the water unless you are a trained lifeguard and have the proper equipment to assist,” he also said.
Dr. Lenworth Jacobs, a professor of surgery at University of Connecticut and someone who has treated patients with shark attacks, said that in the event of a shark bite, “the first order of business is to stop [the] bleeding.”
Applying firm pressure to the bleeding vessel should be done by crisscrossing the hands and straightening the elbows — but it must be done for at least five minutes.
If there are no gloves available, Jacobs recommended using your hands — and removing any clothing to apply to the location of the bleed.
Jacobs said applying firm pressure to the bleeding vessel should be done by crisscrossing the hands and straightening the elbows — but it must be done for at least five minutes.
Many lifeguards have bleeding control kits that contain gloves, a tourniquet and a hemostatic dressing — which is 10 times more effective than a gauze dressing, explained Jacobs, who is also the director of Stop The Bleed program for the American College of Surgeons.
“A person can die from blood loss within five minutes. It’s often the nearest bystander who has the best chance of saving that person’s life,” according to information from the University of California San Diego Health.
Jacobs also warned that the biggest problem is people will often stop applying pressure to examine the wound before a full five minutes is over. This is why he recommended counting to 500 before releasing pressure if a watch is not available.
Jacobs said a tourniquet should only be placed for a maximum of an hour.
A tourniquet, however, is ideal to stop the bleeding because it frees up the hands to help get the patient out of the water — but this may not be possible when resources are limited.
He said a tourniquet should only be placed for a maximum of an hour. Any longer time period than that may lead to a complete lack of blood flow to the tissue — which will make the loss of a limb more likely.
Get the person out of the water
The second important step when taking care of a shark bite victim is to get the person out of the water as soon as possible.
“You don’t want ongoing bleeding while in the water, [as] it will attract other sharks. You want the patient out of the water as soon as you can,” said Jacobs.
He compared someone who is bleeding to a garden hose that is spraying water everywhere.
To stop the water immediately, first kink the hose — then later shut off the main faucet.
“Stop the bleeding first, keep the blood inside the body and get the patient as quickly as possible to the hospital,” Jacobs advised.
Protect the victim from cold
Once out of the water, try not to move the victim unless necessary — but remember to protect the victim from the cold by wrapping the person in a blanket to limit heat loss, Fisher advised.
“Stay with the victim, continue to control the bleeding, monitor vital signs and wait until the emergency medical services [team] takes over,” Fisher added.
What if you have a chance encounter with a shark?
“If you see a shark, remain calm, keep the shark in sight whenever possible and exit the water slowly,” Fisher cautioned.
But if attacked, do not “play” dead.
Fight back with anything available, such as a paddle, a boogie board, a surfboard, dive gear or fishing equipment, said Fisher.
Fight back with anything available, such as a paddle, a boogie board, a surfboard, dive gear or fishing equipment, said Fisher — and try not to use your hands to attack the shark, he added.
He said it’s wise to pay particular attention to attack the eyes, nostrils and gills of the shark.
After an attack, attempt to stop the bleeding before leaving the water by applying direct pressure on the wound while also leaving the water quickly and calmly as possible, Fisher added.
“Remember, you have a greater chance of dying from a lightning bolt than a shark attack,” said Fisher.
“With this said, always be aware of the weather and your surroundings at the beach.”
“Always swim near a lifeguard and check the current local weather and water conditions before going,” he said.
“Also, before heading out, ensure your beach destination has a beach patrol and operating hours.”