Animal Body Language
Last Updated: 4 May 2020This page is concerned chiefly with animal body language, specifically that of sharks, but some of the principles can be applied to human interaction also. Sharks are a type of fish of course, and come in a variety of species and sizes. This page is concerned with those larger, fish eating varieties. It is also hoped that this page might help to dispell some of the myths and fears about sharks, ironically spread by the movie Jaws, the book written by the environmentalist Peter Benchley, who now regrets ever having written it.
Source: Cocos Island 2000
First let us consider some basic facts about sharks.
- More people are killed each year by falling coconuts than from shark attacks. People do not fear coconut trees but they fear sharks as the latter have more visual presence and there is the fear of the unknown/unseen.
- Many shark populations are at the brink of extinction on account of overzealous shark control (in the 1970s and 1980s by impressionable 'vigilantes') and also shark netting; but also from African and South East Asian shark finning (the practice of catching a shark, lopping off its dorsal fin and throwing the bleeding shark back into the water to bleed to death. The driver for this is shark fin soup, which is on the menu of virtually every Chinese restaurant, and is a very popular dish in China. Dorsal fins are ironically tasteless and the soup has to have Chicken stock and spices added so that it actually tastes of anything.
- The oceans are not infested with sharks, that care constantly feeding and eating anything they see! If one went on a dive in the open ocean, one would be lucky to see just one fish, for the large part. Sharks feed infrequently. Great White sharks feed only once every two weeks. Many shark species engage in large undocumented behaviour. For example, female Hammerhead sharks spend much of their time in large groups, and frequently pass by 'cleaning stations' on rock mounts, allowing small cleaner fish to pick parasites from their bodies.
- Most shark species are harmless and not considered potentially dangerous. The few species considered most dangerous are generally the Bull shark, the Oceanic White Tip, the Tiger Shark and the Great White shark.
- The average surfer in places like Hawaii probably surfs with hundreds or thousands or Tiger Sharks in his life. The surf board with the surfer's limbs dangling from it are thought to look a little like a turtle, the Tiger Shark's normal food source, but clearly the shark isn't totally stupid - the board is much larger and looks nothing like a turtle. Attacks on surfers are quite rare. Tiger sharks are considered to be one of the most dangerous sharks, perhaps second to Bull Sharks.
- Great White sharks are quite shy and in general, if spotted on an open water scuba dive, will just swim away.
- In general, Scuba divers have to keep very still and not breathe out too many bubbles or too noisily to get close to sharks, as otherwise they tend to keep their distance. some divers use fully closed rebreathers which do not emit bubbles in order to get very close and not to scare them off. Scalloped hammerhead sharks are particularly timid. Breathing out or pointing is enough to scare off a hammerhead or in fact most sharks one encounters on a dive.
- I have personally observed schools of hammerhead sharks numbering in the 100s, whilst resting motionless against a submerged rock mount, and also whilst in open 'blue' water. In the latter case they were very shy and did not come close.
- I have also been in the middle of a feeding frenzy with white tip sharks on a night dive, literally with his mask almost in the middle of it, and it was perfectly safe. The sharks were interested in a small fish hiding in the coral.
- Humans are not considered to be a (normal) food source or fine cuisine for sharks. Especially divers covered in Neoprene and plastic and metallic objects. Would you eat a ready meal without taking off the packaging? It would not taste very nice would it?
- Shark attacks, when they do occur, mainly consist of an inquisitive bite. This bite is not meant to bite off a huge chunk of flesh to eat, but merely to test the consistency of the object, to determine that it won't break their teeth off, it is indeed an edible item, and that it is their normal food source and indeed tasty to the shark. If a shark was trying to eat you in the first instance it could probably bite half your torso off, if it really wanted to. In the vast majority of shark attacks, when the first inquisitive bite is made, the shark usually loses interest and swims off, even though there would now be a considerable amount of blood in the water. Because of the power of a shark's jaws, the inquisitive bite may well bite into your muscle, leave some nasty holes where the teeth marks are, and if biting into soft tissue like your calf, may leave some of your skin/muscle dangling by a small patch of skin etc. Most shark attacks are not fatal.
- The sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA35) in 1945 in the South Pacific resulted in 880 sailors entering the water without lifeboats and remaining there for just over 4 days. Only 317 were rescued from the water alive. Most deaths are attributed to dehyradation, starvation, drowning and exposure. Whilst stories of widespread shark attacks ensued thereafter, by Oceanic White Tip sharks, an open ocean species, it is only recently established that the sharks mainly fed on the dead bodies floating in the water, away from the groups, and that relatively few live sailors were attacked by sharks. The sharks simply had too much easy food floating around them to bother with the liver sailors. The death toll would likely have been very similar if no sharks had been present at all. The sharks were really doing the job of 'vultures'.
Below are some tips on dealing with sharks. Bear in mind that sharks do not use speech or language and although they have excellent hearing, and sound can affect their responses and behaviour, sound is not a form of communication between sharks. Depending on what you want from your interaction with a shark, it will govern the nature of your interaction and how you deal with the shark. Some people come across sharks by chance, e.g. swimmers, and usually want to get away from them; many scuba divers want to get as close to them as possible, but within certain comfortable limits.
- Sharks will only attack if provoked. One example of provocation is 'invading' their territory. If you walk into someone's house uninvited, you are unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm. Another is forcing a shark into a corner, when it becomes highly aggitated, so it's only way out is through you. Some aggressive and unthoughtful underwater photographers can attest to this. If someone did this to you in the street, followed you, chased you into a cul-de-sac, then stood right in front of you, aggressively, you would likely become highly aggitated and either make a run for it, perhaps pushing the person out of the way, or physically assault the person (in the absence of language and/or knowing what the person wanted). Also, if you are otherwise harrassing a shark, it may bite you out as a defensive action. This does not only apply to sharks but any number of other animals and indeed people (although the latter don't usually bite but use other forms of violence). There are a few exceptions to the above however.
- Avoid swimming or diving in extremely low visibility in areas known to be populated by potentially dangerous sharks. This could either be at dawn or dusk, or when the water is naturally murkier because of algae or nutrients that reduce visibility. This is because a shark cannot be seen until it is too late, but more importantly, the shark cannot see you, or make out what you are. It may get you confused with its normal prey or a special treat. The more visibility you have, the safer it will be - subject to what local shark species there are of course, and the exact conditions!
- Avoid swimming or diving when there are large amounts of a shark's normal prey in the vicinity. e.g. seals are the preferred food of Great White sharks, who tend to populate cooler waters. If you see any seals in an area known to have Great Whites, do not get in the water. You may become confused with their prey, especially in low visibility like above.
- Avoid swimming or diving in shark populated waters if you are bleeding, or have vomited or urinated in the water. The same applies to food scraps thrown from boats or sewage water expelled from boats. If your dive boat is moored up somewhere and has been squirting out sewage and the chef has been throwning fish scraps into the water daily, then sharks in the vicinity may well be more aggressive. Bodily fluids will attract sharks, including menses, blood from injuries incurred on a dive, and urine. Avoid urinating in your wet suit - most scuba divers do this, but it can attract sharks - by gradually leaking out and leaving a convenient trail - as opposed to getting out your penis from your swimming trunks/bathing costume and urinating, where the urine is only left in one area, that you can swim away from. Urinating in your wet suit also obviously means your suit stinks after a while, even if you rinse it out with water. Chum, usually made up of sardines blood and oil, is used to attract sharks from miles around. Sharks will act more aggressively if there are bodily fluids in the water, especially blood. It changes their whole character instantly. They are genetically programmed to do so. It is a survival mechanism.
- Avoid swimming or diving near 'bait balls' or massive shoals of sardines. The latter is mainly applicable to the East African coast, in April, where sardines migrate northwards and are pursued by a multitude of birds, dolphins and sharks. If you happen to be diving in this area and spot a large school of dolphins, it is wise not to get in the water with them, as they are likely being followed by a number of sharks, eager for a meal. Bait balls of course can occur anywhere, but only when there is an extremely large shoal of fish that has been chased usually initially by dolphins. Sharks and birds may join in the action. Bait balls are usually seen from the surface by the sight of many birds diving into the water at one particular spot. Dolphins and sharks slam into this compacted mass of fish at high speed, hoping to snatch a few in their jaws. Bait balls do not always stand still. They are a spiralling mass of panicking fish. The bait ball may move around. So if you get too close to a bait ball, you may suddenly find yourself in the middle of it or the periphery, where a shark may inadvertently bike you thinking you are part of the mass of fish. If you are well away from the bait ball it is usually quite safe. Bear in mind that sharks tend to fly into the bait ball with their eyes closed (for protection), at high speed, and so it will generally bite anything it can inside the bait ball area. Bait ball diving is for experienced divers only.
- When a shark sees you in the water, and is taking an interest in you. its mindset is to try to figure out if you are prey or a rival. It has in all likelihood never seen a human before, and if you are a diver, it has never seen such a wierd looking creature spewing out noisy bubbles. It is curious as to what you are. Are you prey or a rival? Being a rival can mean that it loses interest in you or if you provoke it, it can become irritable, which you don't want. i.e. a rival with whom you share mutual respect, or a threat or aggressor.
- Most of the time when you come across a shark in the water, whether swimming or otherwise, it may approach visible distance, and then lose interest and just ignore you, and likely swim off. As stated above, surfers surf with many sharks every day. The sharks are not interested in them and ignore them and are busy trying to catch their natural prey. A sign of a shark being interested in you is if it remains in the proximity for an extended duration or if it circles you, keeps coming back, or gets progressively closer.
- Sharks detect fear. If you are fearful, they will become aggressive. Not because they necessarily want to become aggressive, but that you have drawn that reaction out of them. If nothing else, a fearful person makes another person or animal edgey, nervous, anxious or annoyed.
- If you purposefully move away from a shark that has taken an interest in you, it signals that you are prey. Do not move away or swim away from such a shark unless you want to draw it in closer (to then show you are dominant), or if you have no other option! If you see a shark and are swimming and want to get back to your boat, then you may want to consider generally swimming in that direction, but taking note of where the shark is, and if the shark swims towards you, not to back away - unless you seriously think it is going to attack you. Even then, there are things you can do to make it back off. It depends if you have the bottle for it or not. And how close the boat or shore is.
- Conversely, swimming towards a shark is a sign of dominance, that you are a rival, and are not scared. It is either inquisitive or aggressive, and is usually enough to get a shark to back off. This is why if a bully steps up to you very close, entering your personal space, then if you also move forwards, you may come to a stale mate, or he may back off; but if you back away as he moves forward, you are weakening your position of assertiveness if you choose to later try being assertive. He will have the upper hand. And so it is with sharks.
- Sudden and erratic movements, and splashing, may mimmick the actions of an injured fish. Avoid this as it makes you look more like prey than a rival. Save any sudden or violent movements for physically fending off a shark and striking it if it comes to that.
- Relaxed breathing will help to get the shark to relax more quickly.
- Monitor the shark's body language at all times. If it becomes too inquisitive, aggressive or comes in too close, then you can become more dominant yourself, which the shark will react to and treat you with more respect (as a rival).
- Keep eye contact at all times. If you lose sight of a shark, you don't know where it is and where it can come at you from. A shark's presence requires you to interact with it continuously, adapting your approach to the situation. When you cannot see the shark, whether it is because you have lose sight of him or you are on the surface with no goggles or diving mask on, then you will not respond to its body language as it approaches you etc., which may result in it moving in closer than it otherwise would have.
- A shark showing a gaping mouth when it is very close is a sign of aggression. It is showing it's weapons to you. This type of response from a shark requires you to become more dominant or aggressive yourself. You can do the same to a shark, if it swims close, you can take the regulator out of your mouth and mimmick a biting action and try to look fierce. Show the shark in biting terms that you are not to be triffled with, even though your bite is not as impressive as the shark's. Confidence is everything! If you try to scare or intimidate a land animal, those that have a kind of aggressive display will tend to use this, even on predators many times their size, and often this strategy works and fenders off potential predators or attackers.
- You can make yourself more dominant by lengthening yourself out, i.e. appearing larger. However you don't want to overdo the aggressive body language as it may make the other sharks more hostile.
- Conversely you can draw the shark in by curling up into a ball, i.e. making yourself smaller in the horizontal plane that the sharks are used to measuring each other in. If you want sharks to come in closer and get more inquisitive, then you can use the latter technique, as long as you are confident at asserting yourself in the water afterwards! If they start to get too inquisitive. Divers generally want a certain level of inquisitiveness but no more!
- You only need to defend your immediate personal space. This is the extent of your reach. Anything outside that personal space is not an immediate threat. If you do not defend your immediate personal space, it shows that you are timid and not a rival, but in fact prey. This is why interracting with a shark is very important. If a shark enters your personal space with its snout, e.g. inches from your chest, and you do nothing, that is very bad. You must defend that personal space or you may get bitten. i.e. if a shark approaches you close enough for you to touch it, then you should generally touch it, to show you can. Examples of activities required when a shark enters your personal space include touching, petting, pushing or showing one's weapons. This is discussed below.
- When a shark enters your personal space, or swims on the periphery of it, you can simply touch or pet the shark, or stroke it, as if it were a large pet dog. Areas to touch or pet may include the snout, the dorsal fin or simply the side of the shark. This asserts your dominance, but not in an overly aggressive manner. This usually sees most sharks off.
- A shark's snout is extremely sensitive as it contains all the receptors that detect motion or vibration in the water, as well as electrical impulses (so that they can 'see' the faint outline of fish hidden in the sand or prey in low visibility conditions). Contact on the snout of the shark is therefore most effective.
- You can touch a shark's snout, lightly push it, or slap the snout with your hand; or the side of the shark also (most effective nearer the head and in front of the eyes). One can also kick a shark with one's fins. Some think it is counter intuitive to put their hands anywhere near a sharks' mouth! But this is just fear. Punching a shark on the nose is a last resort and should only be used if you seriously believe the shark is past the point of being inquisitive (or making an inquisitive bite) and is definitely going to attack you, i.e. trying to eat you or kill you. At this point, do whatever you can to attack the shark as it comes it, stabbing it if you have a dive knife. Stabbing a shark on the nose will of course be highly effective. I reiterate that this kind of action is a last resort, as the shark could potentially bite back.
- Some divers are experienced at putting sharks into a tonic. This is a trance like state where the shark becomes motionless and loses its orientation. This is usually initiated by touching or stroking just under the tip of the snout or the side of the snout in front of the eyes, and then flipping the shark upside down, often stroking its belly. This is clearly easier to perform on smaller sharks, such as white tips, as my dive buddy once did on a night dive, but it has been proven to work with larger sharks, even 5m Tiger sharks. I saw one freediver on television, who was not able to put a mature Great White into a full tonic, but he was able to put it into a bit of a trance, by first touching the snout, and it came by repeatedly as it enjoyed his contact/connection with it and stroking it, for a long period of time, before swimming off. This is a far cry from the Jaws image of Great White sharks. Some sharks, depending on their mood and personality, may get a bit tetchy if you touch their snout (feeling it is a little too personal) and it may be enough to make them swim off. This usually only happens however if you are going out of your way to try to put them into a trance, rather than follow the normal protocols.
- If a shark twitches, shows its teeth, or arches its back and points its fins downwards, then this is very aggressive body language. You can expect an aggressive response from the shark. You can either try to relax the shark with your breathing or by petting, your body language or otherwise. Or get out of the water! You really need to read the situation for yourself and only stay in the water if you want to be there and are comfortable you can handle the situation (if you are a diver, for example).
- A shark does not always increase it's level of inquisitiveness in its interaction with you. It may lose interest after a while and swim off. Not all sharks are inquisitive all the time. Some may take a look at a distance, then swim off, being fundamentally shy. If a shark does get inquisitive and increasingly so over time, this does not mean it will inevitably bite you if you do nothing. However, interacting with the shark reduces the likelihood of a bite to a very small probability (with skill). Often a shark will bump you prior to taking an inquisitive bite. However, a bump (with its snout, usually onto your abdomen or chest) does not necessarily mean it will bite, and it is testing your 'consistency' to see whether you are really prey or not. You should never really get to the stage in your interaction with a shark where it bumps you if you are following the protocol correctly, but it can happen, and if it does, you should certainly be more aggressive back (than you have been). If you do nothing when you are bumped and when a shark enters this far into your personal space, you are asking for trouble. Being bumped is no big deal in most circumstances if you respond back to the shark and become more dominant in your behaviour and body language. However, it ultimately depends on the exact shark and the circumstances, and its mood, and your ability to read the situation.
- If the shark is coming in for a bite, inquisitive bite most probably, i.e. with gaping mouth opening and eyes closing, swimming directly at you, then shove any objects you have on you into its mouth, e.g. an underwater camera, your fins etc. Shoving plastic objects or similar into its mouth will be hard and unpleasant and will signal that you are not food. If it doesn't totally put the shark off, at least you have fended off the shark's bite. But it is usually enough to maintain the balance of the interaction again. You may however want to consider leaving the water as soon as possible at this point (if not earlier!) depending on what you can handle and how personal you want to get with the shark.
- Try to occupy the position of dominance over a shark, so it knows you are not prey but a rival. Great Whites for example, eat seals, and tend to strike from below, by swimmming almost vertically up to a seal at high speed on the surface, to stun it, prior to then finishing it off and eating it. If you are diving with a Great White, if you get below the shark, then it may be phased and swim away or at least back off.
- Avoid wearing shiny bling jewelry on your person whilst swimmming or diving. This includes polished steel watches or gold chains etc. Shiny objects attract a shark's attention, as they reflect light a little like fish scales.
- Avoid using electrical items underwater if you do not wish to attract a shark's attention. This may include a scooter (commonly used in cave diving or navigating long reefs) or even a dive light. If sharks get too interested, switch off your light and/or take your finger off the trigger of your scooter. Also, do not shine your light at the shark or in its face! We might find this aggressive or annoying ourselves if someone was doing this to us, but equally it may attract the sharks also.
- In the extremely unlikely event that a shark ever bites your fin and tries to pull you down, take off your fin!
- As stated above, it is possible to handle the vast majority of large sharks in this manner. By maintaining eye contact and interacting with the shark, it is possible to maintain your boundary with it. However, if there are multiple sharks, then this is still possible, but becomes more difficult. You need to be able to keep an eye on all the sharks. You may not be able to tell the sharks apart, e.g. if one swims off and another one swims back - you may believe it is just one shark. Also if you are watching one shark, another shark could be out of your vision - if you are not able to interact with it, then this can be bad. The skilled diver/freediver can handle a few inquisitive sharks concurrently, particularly if you have a buddy, but there comes a point where you lose control of the situation. If you lose control as there are too many sharks or they are just too inquisitive and persistent, then you need to get out of the water immediately.
- If there is a group of you in the water, and you are interacting with multiple sharks, then it is best to all come together in a tight circle with your backs to each other, so you can interact with and fend off sharks in all directions; and so the shark(s) can only approach you in one direction.
- You can use your voice to scare off a shark if it is close. Shouting at the shark as it approaches very close may help. However avoid shouting generally when a shark is somewhere in the water, as it will tend to attract it. Avoid splashing and erratic movement as mentioned above. However, if a shark is coming in very close, and you are swimming on the surface, then you may want to try kicking it. Don't just float there like a 'lemon'. You have to interact with the shark. This is much easier if you have a dive mask, so you can keep a good eye out for it. Having goggles or a dive mask if you are ocean swimming is a sensible idea. Without them you are half-blind.
When it comes to predatory land animals, such as large wild cats or bears, it is often prudent to stay still if they approach, and not back off, and show no fear. They can run MUCH faster than you. Playing dead works sometimes with bears, but othertimes not! If you have no alternative, then try to look fierce and big, and perhaps shout at them at the top of your voice if they get too close. Bears can climb, so it's no use climbing up a tree!
Of course, not all land animals lose interest if you merely stand still. If a crocodile or alligator (of significant size) is approaching you, then it is likely to outpace you, but depending on how close you are to the shore or safety, you may as well make a run for it, as you have nothing to lose. If a crocodile comes in to attack you, then give it everything you've got. Use anything to attack it. Crocodiles and sharks tend to close their eyes when biting, but if not, then poking or stabbing the eyes is of course a point of weakness. With animals with soft skin or fur, one can jab at the throat, which usually does not require much force. The same goes for humans. This is not 'clean' fighting, but it works!