From bears to sharks to orcas, here's what to do if you find yourself up against these apex predators
- Animal attacks on humans, such as by bears or sharks, are relatively very rare.
- But experts recommend specific actions depending on which predator you're encountering.
Despite lots of fear — and films suggesting otherwise — the risk of being attacked by a bear or a shark remains incredibly low.
Still, with great white sharks returning to Southern California and grizzly bears spreading out in Montana, it's good to know what to do if you do run into any potentially dangerous animals while in the outdoors or the ocean.
Wildlife officials have specific recommendations on the best course of action, but it varies depending on the animal. One thing you should always do regardless of the animal is keep your distance and not approach or surprise it.
Here's what you should do if you encounter any of these apex predators and how you can avoid an attack.
Grizzly bears and black bears
There are two kinds of bears you're likely to run into while outdoors in North America, depending on where you are: grizzly bears and black bears. Black bears especially are widespread, located in most US states, while grizzlies are concentrated in areas of Montana and Wyoming, and throughout Alaska.
Hiking in groups is one way to avoid a bear encounter, as a group is likely to make more noise, thus allowing the bear to hear you coming rather than be caught off guard.
Regardless of the kind of bear you run into, the National Park Service says it's important to stay calm and remember that it's rare for a bear to attack.
You should hold your ground, wave your arms around, and talk calmly to the bear, telling it to back off, in order to identify yourself as a human and not a prey animal. Screaming or making a sudden movement could scare the bear.
You can move away slowly and sideways, continuing to face the bear. Make sure to leave the bear an escape route and avoid boxing it in somewhere.
The park service says if a bear stands, it is usually just curious, rather than showing aggression.
A bear may bluff by charging at you and turning away at the last moment. If this happens, the park service says you should stand your ground. If you have bear spray, you should use it when the charging bear is 30 to 60 feet away, and spray until it changes direction.
The park service is clear that you should not run — bears can run faster than racehorses and are inclined to chase fleeing animals — and you should not climb a tree, which grizzlies and black bears can both do.
If the bear attacks, how you respond will depend on whether it's a grizzly or black bear.
If a grizzly bear attacks, you should play dead. The park service says you should lay flat on your stomach with your hands behind your neck, keeping your legs spread wide to make it harder for the bear to flip you over. Stay in this position until the bear leaves. If the bear continues the attack, then you should fight back and hit the bear in the face.
If a black bear attacks, you should not play dead. The park service says you should try to find a safe place like a car or building. If that's not possible, you should fight back, taking aim at the bear's face and muzzle.
Regardless of the type of bear, the park service said that in the extremely rare event that a bear attacks you in your tent or stalks you and then attacks, it signals the animal views you as prey. You should not play dead and fight back as hard as you can.
Plenty of swimmers are in the close vicinity of sharks and never realize it because, as with bears, it is rare for sharks to attack humans.
One way to avoid a potential shark attack is to avoid swimming alone in waters where sharks could be present, as sharks tend to avoid busy beaches.
If you do see a shark while you are in the ocean, researchers say you should keep your eyes on it. Eye contact lets the shark know you see it and helps prevent the shark from interpreting you as prey, Marissa Wu at the Roundhouse Aquarium in Southern California, previously told Insider.
Most of the time, the shark is curious and will swim along after checking you out. You should keep an eye out for aggressive behavior, such as the shark swimming quickly toward or away from you. A shark that is simply curious will likely be swimming leisurely in a broad S-like pattern.
While keeping your eyes on the shark, you should calmly swim back to the shore.
If a shark does attack, you should hit it in the eye or nose, or, if possible, stick your hands into its gills and pull hard. In most instances, the shark will release and swim away, at which point you should call for help and get back to the beach as quickly as you can.
Although known as "killer whales," orcas earned that name for their fierce reputation of hunting other animals — not humans. Still, if you encounter an orca there are several things you should do to avoid a dangerous encounter with the predator.
"Never swim with these animals because they are much bigger than us, even the small dolphins," Ada Natoli, a professor at Zayed University Abu Dhabi and Founder of the UAE Dolphin Project Initiative, said. "One can observe them from a kayak or paddle boat but always refrain from swimming with them."
Natoli also noted there are no known instances of fatal orca attacks on humans, but the recent conflicts with boats has caused some concern. If your boat encounters a killer whale, he said you should try to keep a distance of at least 50 to 100 meters, or 164 to 328 feet, turn off your engine, or at least slow down.
He also said you should avoid approaching an orca from the back or from the front and try to stay on their side. Orcas will often approach boats out of curiosity, but he said it should not be the other way around.
The Groupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA), an Atlantic orca working group, provides similar advice. They recommend slowly reversing away from an orca, if possible, and keeping a low profile on deck to avoid attracting an orca's attention.
GTOA also says you should keep a firm hold on the boat when moving around, in case the orca does ram the boat.
Other large mammals that may seem harmless but can actually really hurt you
Apex predators are not the only animals that can attack humans.
Every year, tourists to Yellowstone National Park underestimate the dangers posed by bison, and every year some are charged and gored. Bison have injured more people in Yellowstone, one of the country's most visited national parks, than any other animal, according to the National Park Service.
Although bison look similar to big, furry cows, they can run three times faster than humans and are extremely agile, able to swim, turn quickly, and jump fences.
Large mammals like elk and moose are also extremely fast and can cause harm to humans if spooked or provoked.
The park service recommends that visitors never approach wildlife, and stay at least 25 yards, or 75 feet, away from such animals. They recommend staying 100 yards away from bears and wolves.
If a bison or elk charges, the park service recommends immediately running away from the animal, which may be bluff charging. Retreat into a vehicle or building, or utilize your bear spray.
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