How Should Lifeguards Respond To Shark Attacks?

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks


WELLFLEET Lifeguards routinely put themselves in harm's way to save people from drowning. But if a swimmer is attacked by a shark, should a lifeguard enter the water to try and help?

“It's a tough one,” Orleans Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears said. Current protocols indicate that lifeguards should attempt a rescue as soon as the shark has left the area, “but who's to say when the shark has left the area?” he said. Spotting sharks from shore can be difficult, and it's possible that a white shark will linger in the area after biting a person, as they typically do with seals. So is it reasonable to expect a lifeguard – who is often younger than 20 years of age and making around $15 an hour – to attempt a rescue?

“It's not black and white,” Cape Cod National Seashore Chief Ranger Leslie Reynolds said.

Members of the regional shark working group, meeting in Wellfleet Monday afternoon, have worked for the past four years to reduce the likelihood of a shark attack through public education and the rapid sharing of information about shark sightings off local beaches. But they have also taken steps to prepare for a shark attack, like researching and sharing the best emergency medical protocols for shark bite injuries.

In revising the town's lifeguard manual, Sears said he needs to provide lifeguards with direction about how to respond if a shark-bitten swimmer needs help getting to shore. Orleans already has emergency medical technicians and appropriate equipment on the beach.

“We just need to get the person to the beach,” he said.

Some group members suggested getting boats in the water immediately after a reported attack to search for the shark. State shark biologist Greg Skomal said aircraft are more effective at spotting sharks.

“By the time you get a boat out there, that shark's long gone,” he said. But it is feasible that a shark would remain in the area long enough for a plane to reach the area, if it were already in the air.

“How visible, and under what conditions, would a shark be in relatively shallow water?” Chatham Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin asked. Tobin suggested a system that might divert sightseeing planes that are already in the air – like ones that operate from the Chatham airport – to scan the area.

Skomal said there is little information on shark behavior during attacks on humans, since such incidents are usually not observed. In the case of the swimmer who was bitten in Truro in 2012, the shark swam away immediately after.

“It was a test bite,” Skomal said. Seals, not people, are white sharks' preferred source of food. “Humans are typically too bony,” he said. But when a white shark bites a seal, it typically remains in the area to allow the animal to weaken from blood loss before taking additional bites.

“You do not hear too much about rescuers getting bitten,” he said. “The shark tends to focus on the victim, if it's there.”

Reynolds said the professional lifeguards at the National Seashore have told her that if the victim is more than 300 yards offshore, they will not attempt a rescue from the beach, and if the incident is closer, they will make a judgment call. Lifeguards have the discretion to make that decision, she said.

“Our lifeguards' lives are our top priority,” she said.

There are other challenges, as well. Some towns, including Chatham, have not yet been able to hire their full contingent of lifeguards for the season. And in certain remote areas of beach, neither cell phones nor public safety radios can get a signal. Some of the medical protocols remain uncertain for shark attack rescues, as well. While most lifeguards are trained to use tourniquets and quick-clot bandages to stem major bleeding, there are no practical ways for them to protect themselves from blood-borne illnesses if they are paddling to shore, potentially covered in the victim's blood. That's a risk that land-based EMS providers wouldn't face without gloves and other protective equipment, officials said.

The discussion happened two days after a Cape Cod National Seashore ranger spotted a fin in the waters off Wellfleet, though experts are unclear whether the fin belonged to a shark. White sharks typically appear off Monomoy Island in early-to-mid-June.

Meanwhile, various strategies are being explored to provide an early detection system when white sharks approach areas where people are present. Cynthia Wigren of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy said progress is being made on a prototype system for detecting tagged sharks and reporting the information to shore in real-time. Barring unforeseen problems, a test buoy could be deployed this summer, likely in the area off Monomoy Island known as Shark Cove.

“It will give us an opportunity to just test” the system in an area where white sharks are known to congregate, she said.

Skomal said it is important to work out the kinks in such a system.

“We don't need this thing putting out false detections,” he said.

A proposal to use balloon-mounted cameras to spot sharks is also expected to be tested this summer. The conservancy is funding a five-day trial of the product, which uses stabilized cameras outfitted with polarized lenses to scan for sharks. The cameras are held aloft by balloons similar to weather balloons, which are tethered to the ground or to a boat below.

Officials are also in talks with developers of a product called “Clever Buoy,” which uses sonar to detect white sharks. A four-week trial of this system would cost $80,000, Wigren said. The company is based in Australia.


Sharktivity App Now Allows Selective Tracking

CHATHAM The popular “Sharktivity” app, which allows users to share and receive reports of shark sightings, just got an upgrade.

Users can now specify which specific sharks to track, which can be useful for shark enthusiasts seeking to follow the travels of a favorite shark, or for users who want to omit updates from sharks that are not in New England waters.

The app was created by the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and is free to download on Android smart phones, iPhones and tablets.

Members of the regional shark working group said Sharktivity is a useful tool in warning beachgoers of the presence of nearby sharks. Sightings by shark researchers or public safety officials are posted immediately, and ordinary users can also report a sighting and can include a photo. Those submissions are reviewed by shark experts before being posted to the app.

Beach managers say the app is useful in quickly spreading word about shark sightings, since nearly everyone on the beach has a cell phone. More than 100,000 people have downloaded the app since it was launched last summer. Alerts are sent to phones using “push” technology, which means the alert will be sounded even if the app isn't running.

“It's definitely helpful,” Conservancy Executive Director Cynthia Wigren told the working group. “People are looking at this to see where sharks have been.”

“They love it,” Wellfleet Beach Administrator Suzanne Thomas said.