Friendly advice: Avoid the fins

The Baltimore Sun

Let me tell you about an encounter I had with sharks.

(That's the beauty of writing about sharks. You write about an encounter with, say, goats, and readers will be nodding off in their coffee or speed-turning to Dilbert.

(But throw sharks in there and, boy, readers can't get enough. Although that theory might be tested by the time we're done here, too.)

This encounter took place many years ago when I was a young boy swimming off a New Jersey beach.

Suddenly I looked up and saw a half-dozen dorsal fins knifing through the water maybe 30 yards out.

Immediately, I made a bee-line for the shore, my fat little arms and legs churning like pistons.

You think Michael Phelps is fast? Michael Phelps would look like he's towing a barge compared to how fast I was going.

"What's the matter?" my mother said as I came sprinting out of the surf.

"What's the matter?!" I wheezed, trying to catch my breath. "Didn't you see those @#$%^&* sharks out there?!"

"Oh, those are just dolphins," my mother said. "They won't hurt you."



Now she tells me.

"Well," I said, "fins are fins. And I'm not sticking around to see if they belong to sharks or dolphins. So let's just go home and catch some cartoons, because I'm not going back in that water."

I bring this up now because once again we're in the midst of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the annual summer ritual that leaves millions of beachgoers too terrified to go in the water much past their knees.

Here is something I learned from the very first episode: Playing dead can help you survive a shark attack.

Yes, that's what they said. Thrashing about and screaming will only make the sharks think you're wounded prey. So if you find yourself in the middle of a pack of hungry sharks, just stay nice and still, and everything should be just fine.

Tell me something: Is this realistic advice?

Could anyone really stay that still and quiet with sharks all around them?

Wouldn't you instinctively lapse into, I don't know, thrashing and screaming?

That's similar to the advice people always give you about how to survive a plane crash.

Stay calm, they always say. Don't panic.

But if your plane is corkscrewing out of the sky at 30,000 feet, are you really going to be whistling show tunes or reading the in-flight magazine?

(Speaking of remaining calm, what kind of sedatives were the passengers on that Qantas airliner taking last week?

(Did you hear about this? The plane is flying high above the Pacific when suddenly there's a loud bang, the cabin goes into sudden decompression and oxygen masks drop from the ceiling.

(Quick, what's the first thing you'd do in the midst of a full-blown air emergency? Right, pull out your cell phone and record the whole thing. Which one passenger did. I watched the video, and it was amazing to see how calm everyone remained. The flight attendants were even smiling as they made their way up and down the aisles.)

Getting back to sharks, here's another thing I learned from another episode during Shark Week: your chances of surviving a shark attack are better in a group than by yourself.

So if your charter boat sinks and you and a bunch of other terrified passengers are tossed into shark-infested waters, the advice of the experts is: Don't be a stranger.

Stick with the group.


Make friends with others in life jackets.

Your chances of losing a leg or half a torso to a shark will diminish considerably, because sharks are more comfortable picking off lone prey than barging into a group setting for a quick snack.

To test this theory, the folks in this episode dangled a lone plastic dummy off the side of a boat, and a group of three or four dummies a short distance away. Then they chummed the water with a ton of bait, which is like happy hour for sharks.

Sure enough, the sharks were curious about the dummies in the group, but pretty much left them alone. The lone dummy, however, underwent a quick and impromptu amputation.

So again, the advice for shipwreck victims is: Don't act standoffish in the water.

Mingle, mingle, mingle.

And stay calm.

But you already knew that.


Read recent columns by Kevin Cowherd at

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