But What About the Critters? Paddling and Animal Encounters

But What About the Critters When Paddling?

Every now and then we see posts on social media from new or prospective paddlers who worry about animals they may encounter in the water. Both the fresh and salt water varieties.   For some of us, seeing animals most people never get to see is part of the fun of paddling.
If you worry about meeting animals when you’re on the water,  the best way to handle these concerns is to arm yourself with information.  The more you know, the better you’ll be able to manage your fear of a critter encounter, as well as the face-to-face should it come to that.
Keep in mind, though, face-to-face encounters with even the most feared of critters rarely happens.
Nevertheless,  you can learn what animals call your neck of the woods home – whether it’s bird species, snake varieties or otherwise.  Learn what they like to eat and when.  Know where they are likely to hang out during certain times of the day.
Knowledge is power – power over fear!
Along with education, the best rule of thumb is to simply mind your own business and give the animal space when you see them.  It’s their home, after all.  Behave like you are a guest in it, because we are.
Most critters do not want to have encounters with humans and will give you a wide berth.  So that’s a win win!
Feared Species
It wouldn’t take much time to come up with a long list of animals folks may worry about when getting in the water.  But the two that seem to come up the most are snakes and sharks.  Both two very maligned and misunderstood species that play important roles in our environment.
Non-venomous, harmless brown water snake. Photo: UFL Johnson Lab
Herps and Paddling
Okay, we have all seen photos and videos of snakes encountered by kayakers and other paddlers. The interwebs abound with all kinds of sensational stories about water snake “attacks.”  Some of these one-on-ones could happen. Some of then no doubt did happen. But in most circumstances, snakes do not want to encounter us as much as we do not want to encounter them.
Remember, when we see videos and photos on social media, we are getting a small snippet of the whole story – an edited version of what may have happened.  Not necessarily the whole picture. Here’s a good example of that.
I have paddled inland waterways in the South for over 10 years, in cottonmouth habitat and have only seen one.  It wanted nothing to do with us. It didn’t chase us.  It went the other way.  The only time I have seen non-venomous water snakes whilst paddling was when I was actively seeking them out, close to but not under a woody shore  with brushy overhangs. I kept my distance, snapped a few photos and went on my way.  The few times I have seen swimming snakes, they took one look at me on my big (to them) paddle board and disappeared.
Best rule of thumb should you see a snake while paddling: leave it alone. I shouldn’t have to tell you, people do a lot of downright stupid things for the sake of social media.  Almost all snake bites occur when people are trying to capture a snake, kill it or otherwise threaten it, like accidentally stepping on it.
The next best thing to do is learn about snakes in your neck of the woods.
  • Read scholarly, credible articles posted by scientific sources on what snakes can be found in the areas you might paddle.
  • Learn how to identify them.
  • Visit your local zoo, aquarium or natural sciences museum.
  • Learn the myths and tall tales from the facts. They abound when it comes to snakes.  When I worked for the North Carolina Aquariums years ago, we received more questions about snake folklore than we did about fish – even sharks!


When Paddling:

  • Avoid paddling right up against brushy shorelines, and under brushy overhangs.
  • if  you are launching in a remote area that is not well-used, watch where you step and be careful around docks.  Remember, snakes sense our vibrations – so even a mildly crowded launch site it not going to be all that appealing to  a snake.
There are some great Facebook groups that can help you learn snake ID as well as behavioral facts about all kinds of snakes, both venomous and non-venomous.  Truth is, in the US there are only four main species of venomous snakes – a total of 30 if you count all the subspecies/varieties.
Fear of The Man in the Gray Suit or The Landlord as surfers call sharks might be the biggest thing that spooks folks when it comes to salt water. Thanks to popular culture and media, sharks have truly gotten a bad rap.
There are all kinds of statistics that underscore just how unlikely a shark bite is – for instance, you are more likely to get seriously hurt in a car accident on the way to the beach than you are to get hurt by a shark, Or die by bee sting.  We could go on. If you want the lowdown on shark bite stats, visit the Florida Museum’s International Shark Attach File.
It may seem like shark bites are on the rise, but there are more of us in the water than ever before.  In areas where there is documentation of declining food sources for these apex predators, shark bites may be slightly elevated but still, the chances of it happening are still not that high in comparison to other risks we humans take on a daily basis.
The strategies for dealing with a fear of sharks is the same as with snakes: get educated. Learn the realities and bust the myths.  A trip to an aquarium is a fun way to start.  Stay away from the sensational Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, though, and instead, follow the Instagram accounts of conservationists like Cristina Zenato, who dives with sharks nearly every day, often removing fish hooks from their mouths.
Not on the Menu
Sharks don’t actively seek humans out as prey.  We are not in their diet.  In fact, we don’t contain enough of the things they need for nourishment.  So, some scientists believe that shark bites are cases of mistaken identity.  Short surf boards look like seals; boogie boards look like sea turtles. One “test” bite and the shark learns otherwise.  Of course that test bite can do a lot of damage.  It is rare that a shark continues to to feed once it bite a human.  Read more about that here.
There are some common sense precautions to take to make sure you stay safe and not be mistaken for lunch:
  • Do not swim at sunrise or sunset/twilight, when many sharks are feeding.
  • Stay out of and away from murky water – especially after a good rain.  “Nutrients” found in stormwater run off, especially at the mouths of rivers, gulches or stormwater management drains, attract smaller fish, which in turn attract bigger fish.  Combine that with the cloudy water and conditions are perfect for a mistaken identity scenario.
  • Heed local knowledge.
  • Paddle with someone or in a group when you can.
  • Avoid paddling around fishing piers or boats.
  • If you are sup fishing, don’t hang your catch in the water.
I’ve seen lots of sharks whilst paddling – only a couple were large and they went on their merry way, not the least bit interested in me.I assume they are out there every time I paddle out. It is their home.  I’m vigilant but I don’t let it stop me. When I’m in Hawaii, I don’t let my legs dangle much and I get back on the board quickly but calmly if I fall.
Can you spot the dolphin fin? Photo Credit: Boston Globe


It’s good to make sure you know how to tell a shark fin from something else.  Dolphin fins have a distinct curvature to them, especially on the back side of the fin. Whey they swim, you may also see their backs rounding up and out of the water.  If you see their tails, or flukes, they will be perpendicular to their bodies.  Shark fins are straighter and lack that distinct curvature. Shark tail fins are vertical and when sticking out of the water, may look like a smaller dorsal fin. It can be easy to mistake a ray’s wing for a shark dorsal fin if the ray is swimming on its side.  If the fin flops down suddenly, chances are it’s a ray.

Also note: certain fish can also look like sharks.  Especially the cobia.
Shark? Nope. Cobia.

What to do if you see a shark:

  • Don’t panic. That never helps anything. If the shark is a ways away from you, paddle calmly away, and back to shore.  Keep paddle splashing to a minimum.  Stay on your board.
  • If the shark is close and investigating your board, don’t attempt to harm it.  Stay calm! Take your paddle and bang it on the deck of your board to signal you are not prey.  You’ll be making a noise that’s unnatural to the shark that way.
  • If the shark attempts to bite your board, then smack it on the nose with your paddle.  Connor Baxter use this technique several years ago when a tiger shark thought his foil was food and wouldn’t let go.
  • Never approach a shark that is feeding on something in the water.
  • If you see a dead seal or sea lion or other large animal, leave the area calmly and quickly.
We tend to fear the most the things we know least about, so if fear of sharks or snakes is keeping you out of the water, read up on these critters and take the appropriate precautions. It will likely help!