Dan Rattiner's Stories

Ask the Expert: Scientists Explain How to Avoid Shark Bites

Sometimes you just don’t know whom to believe. Three weeks ago, when a great white shark tagged with a transmitter came swimming up to just offshore of Long Island, several experts spoke out to reassure everybody. Yes, Mary Lee was here. (They’d named her that.) But our records go back 150 years, and in that time no one on Long Island has ever died of a shark bite.

Then two weeks ago, seven people who splashed into the ocean in bathing suits from the beaches in North and South Carolina allegedly, and I say allegedly, got so seriously bitten by a shark that some of them had to have limbs amputated. So which is true? Have sharks been attacking Long Island swimmers and it’s all being kept hush-hush? Or was nobody bitten at or Long Island and the whole thing was just a publicity stunt?

We decided to go to the ultimate expert shark scientist for the answer. He is the one to whom who other expert shark scientists go to for their answers. He would know. Dr. Ahab Starbuck was raised by sharks after his biological parents left him on the doorstep of a waterfront hospital in Great Neck as an infant. He went to Harvard and Yale and got two PhDs, then became President of the Ahab Starbuck Shark Institute just next door to the Albert Einstein Medical School Annex in Southampton. We visited him there.

“There are 400 different kinds of sharks in the world,” he told us.

“Could you name some?”

“Certainly. There’s the Bahama saw shark, which has a saw on the front; the bigeye sixgill shark, which lives in deep water; the blacktip reef shark; the blue shark…”

“All these sharks begin with the letter B.”

“There are no sharks that begin with the letter A. I am doing them alphabetically. So I start with the B’s.”

“How about you just name the kinds of sharks that have been known to bite humans.”

“There are just three sharks that do that. None of them start with B, though. They are the great hammerhead shark, the tiger shark and the great white shark. The hammerhead grows to 20 feet, the tiger to 24.3 feet and the white to 26.2 feet. Any of these three can weigh up to 5,000 pounds.”

“And you’ve studied all three?”

“Oh, yes. That’s why I call them by their nicknames: Hammerhead, Tiger and White, though for you I call White ‘Great White’ here because you might not know I’m referring to the great white when I say ‘White.’”

“I’m told there are bigger sharks than these three.”

“There are, but they don’t bite people. They’re the basking shark and the whale shark, at 15,000 pounds and 40,000 pounds respectively. Neither has teeth. They use gills to filter food.”

“Have you ever been bitten by a shark?”

“Of course not. I grew up amongst them. They are my friends.”

“Have you seen anyone get bitten by a shark?”

“Once when I was playing cards with a Great White he bit a visitor coming over to say hello. We were in the lab. He was just trying to protect me. Also, I was ahead $50.”

“Where do people get bitten?”

“On the arm, they take a leg, a foot.”

“I mean where on the planet?”

“By far the greatest number of shark bites reported are in New Zealand or Australia. When you’re there down under, don’t go into the water. I strongly advise that.”

“Why sharks bite people down under?”

“Think about it. The sharks are swimming around upside down. There in the water, the sharks are constantly fighting the possibility that gravity might just pull them right up and out of the water, up into the sky and out into space. There’s no truth to it. But just the thought of it makes them very irritable.”

“What about up here?”

“North of the Equator? We’re one big happy family up here. It’s not a problem. That said, it’s probably not a good idea to do anything that might alarm or anger them. It’s their environment, not ours, after all.”

“What about the report from the Carolinas?”

“Sharks don’t bite people in the Carolinas, unless alarmed.”

“What could alarm them?”

“Any sudden jerky motions, any splashing, any cries out for help.”

“How do you know a shark is approaching?”

“You see the fin.”

“What do you do if you see a shark?”

“Stand really still. Don’t try to swim away. Stare at the sea bottom. Behave humbly. Don’t make eye contact. Then move your arms slowly and very friendly-like. Reach out underwater with your palm up, as if you have some food in it. When the shark comes, just pat it on the nose and talk very softly and sweetly.”

“Anything else?”

“Everyone needs to buy my Starbuck Shark Horn. Here. I’ll show you one. It’s made of blue plastic, as you can see. It’s lightweight, especially underwater, it’s easily gripped in your hand, and when not in use, you can carry it about in the little leather belt and holster that comes with it. Just wrap it around your waist like you’re a Wild West cowboy. It comes in blue, pink and white. It goes with any swimming outfit as a welcome accessory.”

“How do you use it?”

“When you see a shark, push the compressed-air cartridge attached to your belt into the slot at the back of the horn and you’re locked and loaded. To use it, press this button marked with the yellow lightning bolt. When pressed, it makes a sound you can’t hear, but the shark can. He or she will swim away. It’s a call to food somewhere else.”

“And the shark knows that?”

“Sharks are an ancient species, going back hundreds of years. They are wired to go away when they hear this call for
food from another place. That’s it.”

“Suppose I use this on a herd of sharks…”

“It’s a flock. Call them a flock.”

“Suppose I use this on a flock of sharks and nothing happens? Maybe there’s something wrong with it, like the air cartridge has run out. If I can’t hear it, how would I know?”

“You pre-test it. Get a dog. It works on dogs same as sharks. Press the button, if the dog runs off looking for food, you know it’s ok.”

“How much does it cost?”

“The Starbuck Shark Horn at most retail stores is $119. But here in my lab I can offer it for the special price of just $39.95. And because you are a reporter for Dan’s Papers, I can cut that in half to just $19.97. And for that, you get not only the Starbuck Shark Horn and its accessories, but also a spare compressed air cartridge, the official Shark Horn Users Manual, a Shark Horn badge you wear over your heart so officials know you have such a horn, a 10-minute DVD about how to use the Starbuck Shark Horn, and as a special offer on this day only, a free second Starbuck Shark Horn for no extra charge. That’s all this—the horn, the belt and holster, the second cartridge, the manual, the badge, the video and the second horn for just $19.97 and we pay the shipping.”

“Thank you, Dr. Starbuck.”

“It’s been my pleasure. Call me Ahab.”

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