Periods: Shark bait?

Fieldwork is challenging: it’s physically demanding, socially isolating, and usually lacking most modern comforts. For women, LGBTQ+, and members of underrepresented groups in STEM, we are often further faced with a set of unique challenges in the field … but we don’t need to face our challenges alone. Through social media and blogging, we wanted to help foster a supportive community where we can share our experiences.

For our very first entry on Field Secrets, I wanted to cover a topic many of us have to deal with at some point in the field: periods. They always seem to occur at some of the worst times and downright suck. And personally, I am always terrified of leaks … but I’ve never been in a position where a leak could cause anything more than momentary embarrassment. Here, Jill shares her field experience snorkeling with sharks … while on her period. Cue the Jaws music!!!

By: Jill

A small group of friends and I booked a trip to the Caribbean, partly because I have a serious respect for sharks and wanted to learn more about them through some voluntourism. Our activities changed day to day, naturally depending on the weather and what local organizations had for us to do. In most cases, we were out in the field snorkeling with sharks and other local species, or assisting in different shark capture and tagging methods from a small vessel. 

I got my period the day before I left for the trip, and I had known this was going to happen for months as one of the first things I did when I booked my plane tickets to the Caribbean was check to see if the week of my trip would be the same week I tend to experience severe cramps and heavy bleeding. Sure enough, it was, but I knew that I couldn’t let this stop me from going. I was concerned that the physical discomfort of my period would put a damper on the fun and excitement of traveling to a new country and seeing sharks in the wild, but of course with enough Advil I can muscle through anything. What I had a harder time rationalizing (at first) was swimming with sharks while bleeding. I’m sure most people have heard some version of the statistic that a shark can smell a drop of blood in the water from a mile away.

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Although this individual is a resident in the Boston Aquarium, it wouldn’t be impossible to meet a Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus) in the Caribbean. This docile species can be found along reefs and shorelines across the globe. Submitted by Jill.

The topic wasn’t brought up at all by my field guide. I did tell my friends and family, and joked that if they never saw me again then I kind of had it coming. I had done some research online, though, and learned that although the fact that sharks can smell blood in the water from a distance is true, there are no reports of sharks attacking menstruating women. As well, I’m much larger than the ideal prey of the shark species we would be encountering, so it wouldn’t make any sense for one to attack me.

This whole ordeal did prompt the switch from tampons to a menstrual cup (Diva Cup brand), which I highly recommend, shark diving or not. Diva cups are much more reliable/leak proof and can be worn for a longer time than a tampon or pad which suited the nature of the trip since we had long days out at sea but little chance to use desalinated water. A diva cup seemed to be a much better choice, hygienically, and then of course there was the psychological benefit as well. I knew I wouldn’t be in danger but at the same time I did not want my period to be on my mind while I was supposed to be having the time of my life.

The experience of the trip was great, and I’m happy to report that my period was uneventful. If the sharks were ever aware, they certainly did not let on. I was able to swim, hike, and spend long hours on a boat without having to fret about changing out a disposable menstrual product which was a tremendous relief to me as well. I would highly recommend menstrual cups for any one who might experience their period in the field!

Although sharks are capable of finding prey by smell, menstruating women aren’t an automatic addition to the menu. So don’t feel that you must plan your next snorkeling trip – for pleasure or work – around your cycle. For more information on proposed explanations for shark attacks, our contributor suggested checking out this article on  shark attack theories.

Have you ever had similar experiences? Let us know in the comments or join us on Twitter (#femfieldsecrets) to continue the conversation! Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!

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