Survival At Sea 2/2: Surviving Sharks, Finding Land and Other Useful Tips

As many times as Jack, Stephen and their various crews were shipwrecked and marooned, they managed to survive not just because they knew how to take care of the basics (food, water, etc.) but because they knew how to survive everything and anything the ocean might throw at them, allowing them to live long enough to be rescued (or to rescue themselves). Again, hopefully no one ever needs these tips, but reading them is certainly interesting!

Shark Survival

Whether you are in the water or in a boat or raft, you may see many types of sea life around you. Some may be more dangerous than others. Generally, sharks are the greatest danger to you. Other animals such as whales, porpoises and stingrays may look dangerous but really pose little threat in the open sea.

Of the many hundreds of shark species, only about 20 species are known to attack humans. The most dangerous are the great white shark, hammerhead, mako and tiger shark. Other sharks known to attack humans include the gray, blue, lemon, sand, nurse, bull and oceanic white tip sharks. Consider any shark longer than 1 meter dangerous.

There are sharks in all oceans and seas of the world. While many live and feed in the depths of the sea, others hunt near the surface. The sharks living near the surface are the ones you will most likely see. Their dorsal fins frequently project above the water. Sharks in the tropical and subtropical seas are far more aggressive than those in temperate waters. All sharks are basically eating machines. Their normal diet is live animals of any type and they will strike at injured or helpless animals. Sight, smell or sound may guide them to their prey. Sharks have an acute sense of smell and the smell of blood in the water excites them. They are also very sensitive to any abnormal vibrations in the water. The struggles of a wounded animal or swimmer, underwater explosions or even a fish struggling on a fishline will attract a shark.

Sharks can bite from almost any position; they do not have to turn on their side to bite. The jaws of some of the larger sharks are so far forward that they can bite floating objects easily without twisting to the side.

Sharks may hunt alone but most reports of attacks cite more than one shark present. The smaller sharks tend to travel in schools and attack in mass. Whenever one of the sharks finds a victim, the other sharks will quickly join it. Sharks will eat a wounded shark as quickly as their prey.

Sharks feed at all hours of the day and night. Most reported shark contacts and attacks were during daylight and many of these have been in the late afternoon. Some of the measures that you can take to protect yourself against sharks when you are in the water are —

  • Stay with other swimmers. A group can maintain a 360-degree watch. A group can either frighten or fight off sharks better than one person.
  • Always watch for sharks. Keep all your clothing on, to include your shoes. Historically, sharks have attacked the unclothed people in groups first, mainly in the feet. Clothing also protects against abrasions should the shark brush against you.
  • Avoid urinating. If you must, only do so in small amounts. Let it dissipate between discharges. If you must defecate, do so in small amounts and throw it as far away from you as possible. Do the same if you must vomit.

If a shark attack is imminent while you are in the water, splash and yell just enough to keep the shark at bay. Sometimes yelling underwater or slapping the water repeatedly will scare the shark away. Conserve your strength for fighting in case the shark attacks.

If attacked, kick and strike the shark. Hit the shark on the gills or eyes if possible. If you hit the shark on the nose, you may injure your hand if it glances off and hits its teeth.

When you are in a raft and see sharks —

  • Do not fish. If you have hooked a fish, let it go. Do not clean fish in the water.
  • Do not throw garbage overboard.
  • Do not let your arms, legs or equipment hang in the water.
  • Keep quiet and do not move around.
  • Bury all dead as soon as possible. If there are many sharks in the area, conduct the burial at night.

When you are in a raft and a shark attack is imminent, hit the shark with anything you have, except your hands. You will do more damage to your hands than the shark. If you strike with an oar, be careful not to lose or break it.

Finding Land

You should watch carefully for any signs of land. There are many indicators that land is near.

A fixed cumulus cloud in a clear sky or in a sky where all other clouds are moving often hovers over or slightly downwind from an island.

In the tropics, the reflection of sunlight from shallow lagoons or shelves of coral reefs often causes a greenish tint in the sky.

In arctic waters, light-colored reflections on clouds often indicate ice fields or snow-covered land. These reflections are quite different from the dark gray ones caused by open water. Deep water is dark green or dark blue. Lighter color indicates shallow water, which may mean land is near.

At night, or in fog, mist or rain, you may detect land by odors and sounds. The musty odor of mangrove swamps and mud flats carries a long way. You hear the roar of surf long before you see the surf. The continued cries of seabirds coming from one direction indicate their roosting place on nearby land.

There usually are more birds near land than over the open sea. The direction from which flocks fly at dawn and to which they fly at dusk may indicate the direction of land. During the day, birds are searching for food and the direction of flight has no significance.

Mirages occur at any latitude but they are more likely in the tropics, especially during the middle of the day. Be careful not to mistake a mirage for nearby land. A mirage disappears or its appearance and elevation change when viewed from slightly different heights.

You may be able to detect land by the pattern of the waves (refracted) as they approach land. By traveling with the waves and parallel to the slightly turbulent area marked “X” on the illustration, you should reach land.

Rafting and Beaching Techniques

Once you have found land, you must get ashore safely. To raft ashore, you can usually use the one-person raft without danger. However, going ashore in a strong surf is dangerous. Take your time. Select your landing point carefully. Try not to land when the sun is low and straight in front of you. Try to land on the lee side of an island or on a point of land jutting out into the water. Keep your eyes open for gaps in the surf line and head for them. Avoid coral reefs and rocky cliffs. There are no coral reefs near the mouths of freshwater streams. Avoid rip currents or strong tidal currents that may carry you far out to sea. Either signal ashore for help or sail around and look for a sloping beach where the surf is gentle.

If you have to go through the surf to reach shore, take down the mast. Keep your clothes and shoes on to avoid severe cuts. Adjust and inflate your life vest. Trail the sea anchor over the stem using as much line as you have. Use the oars or paddles and constantly adjust the sea anchor to keep a strain on the anchor line. These actions will keep the raft pointed toward shore and prevent the sea from throwing the stern around and capsizing you. Use the oars or paddles to help ride in on the seaward side of a large wave.

The surf may be irregular and velocity may vary, so modify your procedure as conditions demand. A good method of getting through the surf is to have half the survivors sit on one side of the raft, half on the other, facing away from each other. When a heavy sea bears down, half should row (pull) toward the sea until the crest passes; then the other half should row (pull) toward the shore until the next heavy sea comes along.

Against a strong wind and heavy surf, the raft must have all possible speed to pass rapidly through the oncoming crest to avoid being turned broadside or thrown end over end. If possible, avoid meeting a large wave at the moment it breaks.

If in a medium surf with no wind or offshore wind, keep the raft from passing over a wave so rapidly that it drops suddenly after topping the crest. If the raft turns over in the surf, try to grab hold of it and ride it in.

As the raft nears the beach, ride in on the crest of a large wave. Paddle or row hard and ride in to the beach as far as you can. Do not jump out of the raft until it has grounded, then quickly get out and beach it.

If you have a choice, do not land at night. If you have reason to believe that people live on the shore, lay away from the beach, signal and wait for the inhabitants to come out and bring you in.

If you encounter sea ice, land only on large, stable floes. Avoid icebergs that may capsize and small floes or those obviously disintegrating. Use oars and hands to keep the raft from rubbing on the edge of the ice. Take the raft out of the water and store it well back from the floe’s edge. You may be able to use it for shelter. Keep the raft inflated and ready for use. Any floe may break up without warning.

Swimming to Shore

If rafting ashore is not possible and you have to swim, wear your shoes and at least one thickness of clothing. Use the sidestroke or breaststroke to conserve strength.

If the surf is moderate, ride in on the back of a small wave by swimming forward with it. Dive to a shallow depth to end the ride just before the wave breaks.

In high surf, swim toward shore in the trough between waves. When the seaward wave approaches, face it and submerge. After it passes, work toward shore in the next trough. If caught in the undertow of a large wave, push off the bottom or swim to the surface and proceed toward shore as above.

If you must land on a rocky shore, look for a place where the waves rush up onto the rocks. Avoid places where the waves explode with a high, white spray. Swim slowly when making your approach. You will need your strength to hold on to the rocks. You should be fully clothed and wear shoes to reduce injury.

After selecting your landing point, advance behind a large wave into the breakers. Face toward shore and take a sitting position with your feet in front, 60 to 90 centimeters (2 or 3 feet) lower than your head. This position will let your feet absorb the shock when you land or strike submerged boulders or reefs. If you do not reach shore behind the wave you picked, swim with your hands only. As the next wave approaches, take a sitting position with your feet forward. Repeat the procedure until you land.

Water is quieter in the lee of a heavy growth of seaweed. Take advantage of such growth. Do not swim through the seaweed; crawl over the top by grasping the vegetation with overhand movements.

Cross a rocky or coral reef as you would land on a rocky shore. Keep your feet close together and your knees slightly bent in a relaxed sitting posture to cushion the blows against the coral.

Pickup or Rescue

On sighting rescue craft approaching for pickup (boat, ship, conventional aircraft or helicopter), quickly clear any lines (fishing lines, desalting kit lines) or other gear that could cause entanglement during rescue. Secure all loose items in the raft. Take down canopies and sails to ensure a safer pickup. Fully inflate your life preserver. Remain in the raft, unless otherwise instructed, and remove all equipment except the preservers. If possible, you will receive help from rescue personnel lowered into the water. Remember, follow all instructions given by the rescue personnel.

If the helicopter recovery is unassisted, do the following before pickup:

  • Secure all the loose equipment in the raft, accessory bag or in pockets.
  • Deploy the sea anchor, stability bags and accessory bag.
  • Partially deflate the raft and fill it with water.
  • Unsnap the survival kit container from the parachute harness.
  • Grasp the raft handhold and roll out of the raft.
  • Allow the recovery device or the cable to ground out on the water’s surface.
  • Maintain the handhold until the recovery device is in your other hand.
  • Mount the recovery device, avoiding entanglement with the raft.
  • Signal the hoist operator for pickup.

Survival on Seashores

Search planes or ships do not always spot a drifting raft or swimmer. You may have to land along the coast before being rescued. Surviving along the seashore is different from open sea survival. Food and water are more abundant, and shelter is obviously easier to locate and construct.

If you decide to travel, it is better to move along the coast than to go inland. Do not leave the coast except to avoid obstacles (swamps and cliffs) or unless you find a trail that you know leads to human habitation.

Special Health Hazards

Coral, poisonous and aggressive fish, crocodiles, sea urchins, sea biscuits, sponges, anemones, tides and undertow pose special health hazards.

Coral

Coral, dead or alive, can inflict painful cuts. There are hundreds of water hazards that can cause deep puncture wounds, severe bleeding and the danger of infection. Clean all coral cuts thoroughly. Do not use iodine to disinfect any coral cuts. Some coral polyps feed on iodine and may grow inside your flesh if you use iodine.

Poisonous Fish

Many reef fish have toxic flesh. For some species, the flesh is always poisonous; for other species, only at certain times of the year. The poisons are present in all parts of the fish but especially in the liver, intestines and eggs.

Fish toxins are water soluble — no amount of cooking will neutralize them. They are tasteless; therefore, the standard edibility tests are useless. Birds are least susceptible to the poisons. Therefore, do not think that because a bird can eat a fish, it is a safe species for you to eat.

The toxins will produce a numbness of the lips, tongue, toes and tips of the fingers, severe itching and a clear reversal of temperature sensations. Cold items appear hot and hot items cold. There will probably also be nausea, vomiting, loss of speech, dizziness and a paralysis that eventually brings death.

In addition to fish with poisonous flesh, there are those that are dangerous to touch. Many stingrays have a poisonous barb in their tail. There are also species that can deliver an electric shock. Some reef fish, such as stonefish and toadfish, have venomous spines that can cause very painful, although seldom fatal, injuries. The venom from these spines causes a burning sensation or even an agonizing pain that is out of proportion to the apparent severity of the wound. Jellyfish, while not usually fatal, can inflict a very painful sting if it touches you with its tentacles.

Aggressive Fish

You should also avoid some ferocious fish. The bold and inquisitive barracuda has attacked people wearing shiny objects. It may charge lights or shiny objects at night. The sea bass, which can grow to 1.7 meters, is another fish to avoid. The moray eel, which has many sharp teeth and grows to 1.5 meters, can also be aggressive if disturbed.

Sea Snakes

Sea snakes are venomous and sometimes found in midocean. They are unlikely to bite unless provoked. Avoid them.

Crocodiles

Crocodiles inhabit tropical saltwater bays and mangrove-bordered estuaries, and range up to 65 kilometers into the open sea. Few remain near inhabited areas. You commonly find crocodiles in the remote areas of the East Indies and Southeast Asia. Consider specimens over 1 meter long dangerous, especially females guarding their nests. Crocodile meat is an excellent source of food when available.

Sea Urchins, Sea Biscuits, Sponges and Anemones

These animals can cause extreme, though seldom fatal, pain. Usually found in tropical shallow water near coral formations, sea urchins resemble small, round porcupines. If stepped on, they slip fine needles of lime or silica into the skin, where they break off and fester. If possible, remove the spines and treat the injury for infection. The other animals mentioned inflict injury similarly.

Tides and Undertow

These are another hazard to contend with. If caught in a large wave’s undertow, push off the bottom or swim to the surface and proceed shoreward in a trough between waves. Do not fight against the pull of the undertow. Swim with it or perpendicular to it until it loses strength, then swim for shore.

Courtesy of The Discovery Channel.
Image: Screencap from the movie Castaway. Copyright 20th Century Fox.

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