How To React If You Encounter Sharks While Snorkeling

Sharks are some of the most fascinating creatures in the ocean, but thanks to movies and news flooding media when a rare attack happens, people have a deep fear of them. The truth is that snorkelers are unlikely to encounter dangerous species just harmless ones that live near shallow reefs, but knowing what to do if you see a shark while snorkeling is important so you can react accordingly in such a situation and this is what we explain here in details.

Do sharks attack snorkelers

Shark species people see while snorkeling in most cases are reef and nurse sharks. They are essentially not dangerous and even if sharks approach you, they will just swim away without showing aggression or interest if you don’t threaten them or don’t try to hold onto their food. Pelagic species that might be dangerous for humans usually are not present in shallow waters in the daytime and come up from the deep only after dusk to feed.

Snorkeler with a reef shark

Shark attacks aren’t as common as shown in the media. According to ISAF International Shark Attack File, snorkelers make up only 4% of all incidents. In comparison, 60% of the bites involve surfers and body surfers.

The number of attacks shows a declining trend with an annual average of approx. 70-80 unprovoked cases mainly in the US, Australia, Brazil and South Africa. In 2021, there were 11 shark-related fatalities.

How to react if you see a shark while snorkeling

Even though attacks very rarely involve snorkelers, the possibility of being approached by a shark still exists. Encountering a shark doesn’t mean you are in danger – they feed on fish and marine mammals and humans are not on their menu – but it is important to know what to do in case you see one.

white tip reef shark in the Indian Ocean

Stay calm and back away

In more than 90 percent of the cases, sharks are still just curious even when approaching people, but panicking can trigger their self-defending reflex and result in an attack.

Small sharks are swimming under a snorkeler

On the other hand, erratic movements like splashing or paddling create irregular amplitude shock waves in the water that may be a sign of injured prey. Electrical fields generated by the prey are quickly detected by sharks through the network of their mucus-filled pores, called Ampullae of Lorenzini. Therefore, try to calm down, swim at a steady pace with rhythmical, smooth movements, and back away slowly.

Leave the water as soon as possible

If you have spotted a shark around you that is a lot bigger in size than common reef sharks or seems to be aggressive, get out of the water as soon as possible. Return to the shore or back on the boat. If you are far away from the shore, search for a rock or sandbank or ask for help from a boat if there is one nearby.

Man swimming with sharks in Hawaii

Maintain eye contact

To be able to defend yourself if needed, you must know where the potential danger is, so keep your eyes on the shark. When it swims towards you, make eye contact; this is a clear sign to the shark you are not a possible threat or a competitor for its food.

Defend yourself

If a shark swims toward you, in most cases it still means it is ‘just’ curious but if it behaves aggressively, you need to fight back to scare the shark away.

face to face with a shark underwater

Use a stick, pole, torch, camera, or speargun if you have one with you to hit the sensitive areas of the head: around the eyes, end of the nose, or on the gills. If you don’t have any object you can use, hit it in the face with your hand or foot. As soon as the shark realizes you are not an easy, injured prey but a strong threat, it swims away.

How to minimize the chance of encountering sharks

Case studies show that very often the victims themselves provoke the shark attacks. Most of the time, people are not even aware that their behavior in the water may lead to an incident, that’s why it is important to know what the main provoking factors are and what to do and not to do in order to lower the risk of a dangerous shark species approaching you.

Blacktip reef shark swimming over the reef in the Maldives

Snorkel with a buddy or in a group

Sharks show more interest in humans swimming alone, while usually moving away from groups. Therefore, go snorkeling always in pairs or consider group snorkeling. Always having a buddy is anyway one of the most important rules for beginner snorkelers but also for experienced ones. Not only the presence of sharks, but other factors such as coral injury or leg cramping can lead to dangerous situations when having a partner who can help is essential.

Nurse shark in the Caribbean Sea

Do not snorkel before sunrise and after sunset

Sharks hunt and feed at dawn and dusk. This is the time when they may appear in shallower waters/near reefs and the reduced visibility might result in a mistaken attack. Therefore, in coastal areas where species of concern may be present, do not go into the water early in the morning or after sunset.

Related post: When is the best time to go snorkeling?

Look for warning signs

Popular snorkeling destinations take safety more and more seriously to avoid incidents. Signs and boards are placed out to warn visitors about the potential dangers that can be a Rip current but also the possibility of sharks in an area. Always look for such warning signs and take them seriously; they are there for a reason!

Shark warning sign at the beach

Snorkel in designated areas

Onshore hotels with a house reef usually have designated snorkeling areas which are often secured by buoys/ropes and/or monitored by lifeguards so if there is such an area where you are staying, always snorkel there.

Staying within the buoy line of course does not mean that no shark can appear there, but sharks usually avoid noisy/busy places and in case anything happens, the guards are nearby to help.

If you are about to snorkel from the shore at a non-marked site, ask locals if that specific place is safe to snorkel and if there is any danger (sharks, deep water, currents etc…)

Following safety warnings and asking for locals’ advice on the conditions are among the most important safety guidelines in snorkeling.

Get out of the water if you get injured or start bleeding

Sharks have highly refined senses; they quickly detect the presence of blood in the water since it means for them there is an injured prey nearby or something about to die which might make them get into hunting mode. Although, the myth that they can smell blood from miles away is not true; blood dilutes at an exponential rate with distance from the source, so it must be a high concentration of blood in the water to make sharks interested.

Juvenile blacktip sharks hunting in shallow water

Consequently, we can say that they will not attack if you enter the ocean with a small cut, but safety is always the most important thing, so if you accidentally touch a coral or suffer an injury that results in a bleeding cut or bruise, leave the water as soon as possible.

It is also a frequently asked question if women can go snorkeling while menstruating. There is no evidence that sharks are attracted to period blood so if you feel good and do not experience extreme cramps or pain, it’s totally fine to snorkel on your period.

Author’s note: It is also just a rumor that you can attract sharks if you pee in the ocean. While it is true that they can smell human urine, in fact, they are not particularly interested in it. This theory was tested on a large-scale shark behavior experiment done by National Geographic researchers.

Don’t swim in areas with certain activity

Lots of activity in the water, for example, a seal colony, dolphins, or diving birds always means there is food in the area, usually a large shoal of fish or a weak, injured, or already dead marine mammal which means that predators are present too.

Sharks swimming near the Ocean surface

Such activities usually happen in open water where swimmers and snorkelers don’t go anyway, but if you experience increased activity near the shore, don’t go in the ocean, or if you are already in the water, leave it immediately.

Avoid entering the water near harbors and fishing boats

Fishing boats also represent food source for sharks since fishermen often clean their catch onboard and simply throw the cut-off bits in the water. This debris attracts seabirds and marine predators including sharks, so do not snorkel near harbors and fishing boats.

Seabirds gather around fishing boat

Avoid bright, neon swimwear

Brightly colored swimsuits and accessories are usually recommended due to safety reasons (they make you more visible to passing boats or lifeguards), in areas where sharks might be present, it is better to skip vibrant colors.

Snorkeler wearing dark colored UV protective clothes

Although sharks don’t really see colors, they notice contrast and may be lured in by bright tones such as red, yellow, orange or contrasting patterns like black and white. Dull and plain dark colors like gray, brown, or dark blue are less attractive to them.

Do not wear shiny items

Just like vibrant colors, shiny items like jewelry or watches can also attract the attention of sharks because they reflect off the light while you swim near the surface – just think about fish scales. This, of course, does not mean they will attack immediately if you have something shiny on you, but make sure you are not wearing more reflective items than necessary.


What shark species can you see while snorkeling?

The most common shark species snorkelers encounter are the Blacktip reef shark, the Whitetip reef shark, and the Nurse shark. These species, especially the ones that come into shallow water and swim into lagoons are relatively small, essentially harmless, do not attack unless they feel threatened, and will most likely just swim away from you. If you are lucky, you can encounter a whale shark in tropical oceans. Although the largest shark, whale sharks are completely harmless since they are filter feeders meaning that they eat only plankton and fish.

Where can you see sharks while snorkeling?

Snorkelers can encounter sharks in shallow reef areas in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region and Caribbean countries. The best countries to see sharks while snorkeling are Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines, French Polynesia, The Maldives, Egypt, Belize, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Guadeloupe, and Hawaii.

What shark species are dangerous?

Based on case studies of attacks, the highest-risk species are the Bull, Oceanic Whitetip, Shortfin Mako, and Tiger sharks. Hammerhead sharks and silky sharks and the great are also considered to be potentially dangerous species. However, attacks of these species are very rare since they are living in the pelagic zone and usually are not seen in shallow depths where people swim or do water activities.

Do sharks come close to the shore?

Shark species that are considered dangerous spend most of their time in the deep ocean and are the most active at approx. 0.6-1.2 miles (1-2 km) far from the shore. However, sharks do swim onshore during their feeding time (around dusk, dawn, and at night) because there is more food in warmer waters. Snorkeling in groups and not being in the water before sunrise and after sunset can reduce the risk of encountering sharks near the shore.

How can you tell if a shark is aggressive?

Every shark species has different behaviors but there are some signs that indicate if a shark is unhappy with your presence in the water or feels threatened and might get unusually aggressive. Stay alert and be ready to back off if you see that the shark swims weirdly, puffs itself up with its pectoral fins pointing forward, moves quickly up and down, starts circling around you, hunches its back, or rapidly opens/closes its mouth.

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Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years experience. She fell in love with the ocean when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea in 2008. Since then , she is traveling all over the world to discover our waters. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. Visiting mega-cities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. She is interested in sustainable traveling and marine conservation. She is hoping to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!