Nova Scotia·Audio

How to keep yourself safe from sharks in Nova Scotia waters

A researcher with Dalhousie University in Halifax is working to change the reputation of sharks by teaching Nova Scotians how to protect themselves when they get in the water.

Here are the dos and don'ts for swimmers, surfers and divers

Reports of shark sightings have become more common in the waters around Atlantic Canada and scientists say warming waters due to climate change may be pushing the animals north. A great white shark is pictured in an undated file photo. (©Ron and Valerie Taylor)

A researcher with Dalhousie University in Halifax is working to change the reputation of sharks by teaching Nova Scotians how to protect themselves when they get in the water.

"We're at a phase now where their populations are declining and there's a lot of work to just rebrand the shark and get people to see that they're not these mindless animals," Vanessa Schiliro, a marine biology student at Dal, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Monday.

"They're actually super important for our oceans and help keep them balanced and healthy."

That's why last month, Schiliro created a short video describing the dos and don'ts of shark safety

She said she was inspired to make the educational video because of the increase in sightings in Atlantic Canada over the last few years, including one alleged attack.

Last August, a 21-year-old woman was bitten by what was believed to have been a shark in the waters off Cape Breton. There hasn't been a confirmed shark attack in Canadian waters since 1870.

Robert Hueter, the chief scientist for Ocearch, a U.S.-based shark-tracking organization, has said great whites prefer cooler waters and with climate change pushing warmer waters further north each year, it's possible more and more great white sharks will be moving into Atlantic Canada.

Schiliro said great white sharks are usually found in coastal waters from July to November, which is when Nova Scotians should be prepared and know how to protect themselves.

LISTEN | How to keep yourself safe around sharks in Nova Scotia waters: 

A researcher at Dalhousie University wants to know: are you shark smart? With more and more of the creatures showing up in our waters, Vanessa Schiliro says it's important to talk about shark safety. She offers some dos and don'ts while in the waters off Nova Scotia.

Here are the dos and don'ts for swimmers, surfers and divers when it comes to shark safety. 

Dos

Schiliro said anyone getting into the water should first know their environment.

Do a scan of the water before getting in. Always check if there are any seals in the area, or any other creatures that may be prey for sharks. 

"If there are seals, there's likely to be sharks," she said, adding that people should stay away from those areas. 

She said people should also be mindful of what's going on around them. For example, if there are seals nearby, look at how they are behaving. If they're avoiding the water, that could mean there's a shark nearby.

She also recommended swimming in groups, and staying close to shore.

"If something happens, you will be quicker to gain assistance if needed and you can exit the water quicker if there is a shark nearby."

Don'ts

Schiliro said people should avoid that water when there's bad visibility, including murky or overcast conditions. This could make it harder to detect movement in the water.

She said people should also stay out of the water when there's nearby fishing activities or animal remains, and at dawn and dusk when sharks tend to hunt.

When you do get into the water, Schiliro said people should avoid wearing bright, contrasting colours. White sharks only see shades of grey so anything that stands out in the darker water "could pique their interest."

For the same reason, people should avoid wearing shiny clothing or jewelry.

"Shiny jewelry can look like fish scales — that sheen under water — that can be an attractant."

What to do if you encounter a shark

Schiliro said if you do encounter a shark, don't panic.

"When you panic, that takes away from our ability to react in a mindful way and it's just important to realize that just because you see a shark, it doesn't mean it's going to come attacking."

She said you should keep an eye on the shark and avoid frantic movements like yelling, splashing and swimming away too quickly. These movements mimic what scared prey would do.

"Ultimately, you want to show it that you're a predator and not prey and not act like something that's kind of panicking once it sees the shark," she said.

She said if the shark does come close, she recommends creating a buffer space. Surfers can use their surfboard and divers could use any equipment they have on them.

"Create space with that and just try to stay calm, move cautiously and just exit the water with low energy and noise."

Schiliro said she hopes this advice will alleviate the fear people have of sharks.

"We just want to behave respectfully toward the animal. It's a wild animal like a bear is or a snake is and [these are] just some basic things we can have in mind for both us and the shark," she said.

"I really want people to keep in mind that we're probably a bigger threat to sharks than they are to us."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cassidy Chisholm

Digital journalist

Cassidy Chisholm is a digital journalist with CBC News in Nova Scotia. She was previously based at CBC New Brunswick. You can reach her at cassidy.chisholm@cbc.ca

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet, Alex Guye

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