GREAT WHITE SHARK ATTACKS
Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are responsible for more serious shark attacks than any other shark species. They have accounted for 292 non-fatal attacks and 59 fatal attacks for of total of 351 attacks. Gavin Naylor,director of the Florida Museum’s shark research program said a spike of shark attack fatalities among all shark species in 2020 and 2021 was almost certainly because of the expanding numbers of white sharks, which have been increasing in various localities likely in response to a boom in the seal populations they feed on.” [Source: Jerald Pinson, Shark Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, January 24, 2022; International Shark Attack Files, 2023]
Some places post higher figures for great white shark attacks and fatalities. By one estimate there have been 311 verified deaths from great white shark attacks. One reason for the difference between this figure and the lower figure above is that the figure above only counts unprovoked attacks. Provoked attacks that are not included include attacks associated with spearfishing, fishing and chumming (attracting sharks with bloody fish part). Attacks on surfers are considered unprovoked attacks.
Between 1876 and 2001, they were involved in 254 recorded unprovoked attacks, 67 of them fatal, and about a third of them in waters off California. Most of the victims were surfers or divers who were bitten in the leg or arm and had one or more arteries severed and bled to death. There might have been a lot more attacks were it not for the fact that great whites hunt in relatively cold water and rarely encounter humans.
Great white shark attack human victims are typically people engaging in aquatic activities in the ocean such as swimming, diving, surfing and kayaking. In recent years the number of great white attacks have increased. This is partly explained by the increase in the number of people donning wet suits and entering waters with great whites. However the fatality rate has dropped from 92 percent before 1950 to 50 percent in 1950 to 15 percent today. These statistics reflect that victims are taken out of the water quickly, usually because they are with a friend and near a boat, and given timely first rate medical care.
R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “For all the fear white sharks inspire, it is ironic that people probably pose the single greatest threat to white sharks. People kill them for sport and trophies, and hunt them to reduce their populations near swimming and surfing beaches. In addition, there's a flourishing and lucrative black market in white-shark jaws, teeth, and fins, even though such trade is illegal under international law. White sharks take between nine and sixteen years to reach maturity, and females give birth to just two to ten pups every two or three years. Such a life in the slow lane makes the white shark extremely vulnerable to even moderate levels of fishing.
Websites and Resources: Shark Foundation shark.swiss ; International Shark Attack Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks ; Tracking Sharks trackingsharks.com, which records all global shark attacks; Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems
What Great White Shark Attacks Are Like
areas where Great Whites have been seen R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “Any discussion of white sharks must acknowledge their occasional, though much-publicized, "attacks" on people. The vast majority of them, however, bear no resemblance to shark attacks on prey. The attacks on people are slow and deliberate, and the resulting wounds are relatively minor compared with the wounds inflicted on prey. About 85 percent of the victims survive. Deaths do occur from blood loss, but there are very few verified cases in which a white shark actually consumed a person. Clearly, we are not on their menu. [Source: R. Aidan Martin, Anne Martin, Natural History magazine, October 2006]
Most great white shark attacks consist of one bite and a release — a probing bite and a retreat. After two thirds of these attacks the great white leaves the scene. According to the Shark Attack File over 80 percent of the people attacked by great whites in the 1990s survived. Leonard Compagno, an international authority on shark taxonomy said, “If the great whites really attacked the people listed in the file, hardly any would have survived.” Shark expert George Burgess said: “Great whites are good smellers and tasters. As soon as they have human flesh in their mouth, they can probably tell that it’s not their normal prey. The question is: Does it make a difference to them?”
Douglas Herdson at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth told The Guardian that great whites typically feed on seals and, unlike other sharks, they rely on sight rather than scent or sound to find their prey. They lurk at the bottom and look up for a seal-like silhouette. And when you're on a surfboard, you can look just like a seal," Dr Herdson said. When great whites strike, they rapidly swim upwards and, just before reaching the surface, release an ink-like liquid into their eyes to prevent the sunlight from dazzling them. "They normally take one bite and then back off. Then, when they think the prey is either dead or weakened, they come back in to feed," Dr Herdson said. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, December 17, 2004]
According to Animal Diversity Web: Great white sharks tend to attack swiftly with a single bite and then retreat. If the bite is minimal, the individual may have a chance to seek safety. However, if the bite is critical, damaging large organs or appendages, death can result for the victim. A review of great white shark attacks off the western United States showed that about 7 percent of attacks were fatal, but data from other localities, such as South Africa, show fatality rates of more than 20 percent. Fatality rates as high as 60 percent have been recorded from attacks in the waters off Australia. Many researchers maintain that attacks on humans stem from the shark’s curiosity. Other authorities contend that these attacks may be the result of the shark mistaking humans for its natural prey, such as seals and sea lions. It is also possible that great white sharks intend to attack humans where their normal prey may be scarce [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]
Study Finds Great White Sharks Often Swim Near Humans But Don’t Attack
In June 2023, Live Science reported: Humans and juvenile great white sharks swim in the same waters nearly every single day along some beaches in southern California, a new study has found. Yet bites remain rare. “I think what we've finally done is put a nail in the coffin for the old myth that if you're in the water with a white shark, it's going to attack you,” study co-author Chris Lowe, a marine biologist at California State University, Long Beach, told Live Science. The researchers published their findings on June 2 in the journal PLOS ONE. [Source: Ethan Freedman, Live Science, June 10, 2023]
Shark attacks are extremely rare yet perceived risk among the public is high, the study authors said. Part of the problem, they said, is there is very little data showing how often sharks and humans come into close proximity. To find out, the researcher flew a drone over beaches in southern California every month for two years, noting where in the water they spotted people and great white sharks. Most of the juvenile great white sharks they spotted were at two locations: Carpinteria, which is just south of Santa Barbara; and Del Mar, just north of San Diego. Along those beaches, the research team spotted a human-shark interaction on 97% of the days they took the drone out.
The sharks were all located on the far side of the wave break — the line where the waves start to crest — but so were plenty of people. While waders and bodyboarders tended to stay on the beach side of the wave break, swimmers, surfers and paddle boarders were frequently spotted past the wave break — often bringing them close to white sharks. Yet over the course of the study, there was just one unofficial report of a white shark bite along these beaches, Lowe said. A few months afterward, there was one additional record of a shark bite, he added.
The young white sharks are probably more focused on eating animals like stingrays, which live on the ocean floor, Lowe said. And even though these young sharks can still grow to about 9 feet (2.7 meters) long before they reach adulthood, they might be afraid of humans, he added.
The researchers are still trying to understand why the juvenile white sharks were congregating around Carpinteria and Del Mar. One reason might be an abundance of food, Lowe said. But these young sharks might also hang around the coast because there aren’t that many adult white sharks nearby to threaten them. Adult white shark tend to live closer to the offshore islands and further north where they can find more seals and sea lions, Lowe said, adding that while he’d definitely want to be more careful going into these waters, bites from adult white sharks are still rare.
But with the juveniles off southern California, the findings show that shark encounters are extremely common and not particularly dangerous. It's possible for someone to swim near one of these juvenile white sharks without ever knowing it — Lowe said they’d often spot sharks right next to, or even underneath someone who appeared completely unaware of the giant, predatory fish. “For years, we've been saying we really don't think sharks are as dangerous to people as people think or as they've been taught to believe,” Lowe said. “And what this research shows, for the first time, is that that’s true.”
Great White Sharks Attacks on Humans — Cases of Mistaken Identity?
Some scientist speculate that one reason why divers in black suits and surfers are sometimes attacked is that their underwater profile is similar to the profile of a swimming seal, the sharks preferred food. Great white shark like seals in part because of their high fat content. Humans on the other hand for a great white’s perspective, scientists say, are easy to catch but too muscular. Kimley said, "Most surfers they just spit out."
Studies have shown that many great white attacks of humans are carried by juvenile sharks, who perhaps have not completely developed their hunting skills. People can reduce their chance of a attack if they don't hang out in midwater or at the surface and adopt a position that may resemble a seal.
Great white shark prefer other food sources to humans. "Seals have a lot of blubber and meat, so they are a high efficiency preferred menu item of great white sharks," New England Aquarium spokesperson Tony LaCasse told Discovery News. "Humans are not on their menu because we are a completely inefficient meal, since great white sharks are looking for maximum calories per kill." [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery Channel, July 18, 2011]
R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “ Klimley suggests that, compared with blubbery marine mammals, people are simply too muscular to constitute a worthwhile meal. Our view is different: we believe that white sharks probably bite people not to eat them but to satisfy their curiosity. Fortunately, the shark's investigation of a person is usually interrupted by the victim's brave companions.
Is Bad Eyesight the Reason Why Great White Sharks Attack Humans
A study published in October 2021 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, suggests that juvenile great white sharks — responsible for most of the reported great white attacks on humans — have poor eyesight and have difficulty telling the difference between humans, prey and other objects. [Source: Vanessa Etienne, People, October 27, 2021]
According to Australian researchers, People magazine reported, sharks are either completely color blind or have a limited color perception, causing them to rely on motion and brightness while searching for prey because their spatial resolving power is "considerably worse than humans." The study used video footage to analyze great white sharks' perception and ability to differentiate objects underwater like rectangular floats, humans swimming, humans paddling surfboards, and pinnipeds — including sea lions and seals. "From the perspective of a white shark ... neither visual motion nor shape cues allow an unequivocal visual distinction between pinnipeds and humans," the study's results found, "supporting the mistaken identity theory behind some bites."
Dr. Laura Ryan, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Macquarie University's Neurobiology Lab, said surfers have the highest risk for fatal shark attacks. "We found that surfers, swimmers, and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) on the surface of the ocean will look the same to a white shark looking up from below because these sharks can't see fine details or colors," she said in a press release.
David Ebert, program director for the Pacific Shark Research Center, told KNTV; "In the case of surfers, they probably can't make out exactly what it was. They know there is something there but doesn't have the same type of vibe that a seal does. It's probably a lot of times where you see the bite and spit. Where the shark will bite the surfer and let it go. It's probably more of an investigatory action."
Great White Shark Decapitates Diver in Mexico
It is extremely rare for a great white shark to bite humans around the head and shoulders. But that is exactly what happened in January 2023 to a diver decapitated by a 5.8-meter (19-foot) -long great white shark while diving for ax tripe, a scallop-like mollusk, in Mexico. [Source: Harry Baker, Live Science, February 11, 2023]
Live Science reported: Manuel Nieblas López, who was in his 50s, was attacked in Tobari Bay along the Gulf of California off Mexico. At the time of the attack, López was collecting the shellfish at a depth of between 11 and 18 meters (36 and 59 feet) using a surface-supplied air source — a scuba-like apparatus that connects the diver to a compressed air source on a boat through a series of pipes, according to Trackingsharks.com. Two other fishermen, who were on a support boat when the attack happened, witnessed the shark "impressively ripping off his head and biting both shoulders," Jose Bernal, who spoke for the surviving fishers, told Trackingsharks.com.
Sharks rarely bite people. When they do, they typically grab the legs. A shark biting a person's head or shoulders is extremely rare, experts told Live Science. It is so rare so rare that Greg Skomal, a marine biologist at the University of Boston and head of the shark program at Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, has never heard of it occurring. "As rare as shark bites on humans can be, decapitation is even more rare," added Chris Lowe, the director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.
Why Did the Great White Shark Decapitate the Diver?
So what could have caused this unusual type of attack? According to Live Science: As with almost all shark attacks, "mistaken identity" is likely the main reason why the shark attacked López, the experts said. "If sharks are excited and hungry, they make rash decisions and bite what — in the heat of the moment — they consider a potential prey item," said Gavin Naylor, a marine biologist at the University of Florida. "Remember that predators have to think quickly," he added, and if they hesitate it "can leave them hungry." [Source: Harry Baker, Live Science, February 11, 2023]
Around 60 percent of shark attacks recorded by the ISAF occurred in murky waters with reduced visibility, Naylor said. (There is no mention of the water quality in any reports of the most recent attack, so it is not possible to know for sure if this played a role.) The Sun reported that López may have avoided the attack if he had been wearing a brightly colored wetsuit to help him stand out from seals, which had been advised by local authorities. But the experts are unconvinced by these claims. "It is a difficult hypothesis to test," Skomal said. "Since most wetsuits are black or darkly colored there is no way to tell statistically whether there is a trend there or not," Lowe added.
However, the diver's fishing activity likely played a role in misleading the shark into thinking he was a prey animal, the experts said. The smell of the shellfish concentrated around the diver "could have lured the shark to the area," Lowe said. "Any time someone is fishing — whether for fishes or invertebrates like scallops or lobster — sharks are drawn to the smells in the water and the vibrations of struggling animals," Naylor added.
"It is also possible that [due to his position on the seafloor] he resembled a sea lion foraging," Skomal said. Fishers like López had been warned to avoid fishing in the area due to an increase in shark activity during December and January, when pregnant female sharks enter the area, Newsweek reported. In December 218, another fisher was killed after being attacked by a great white shark shortly after jumping in the water, according to Trackingsharks.com.
López's position on the seafloor may explain why the shark attacked his head and shoulders. "It was the most accessible part of the person's anatomy," Naylor said. Most scallopers essentially "walk along the bottom" so the shark could not have approached the victim from underneath and approaching from the side would have likely left the shark open to a potential counterattack from its prey, he added. Lowe agreed that "the person's orientation in the water relative to that of the shark" plays a key role in where they are bitten. It is also possible that the shark deliberately went for the head "to quickly incapacitate the perceived prey," which has been suggested by some shark attacks on seals, Skomal said.
However, it is hard to say what happened in this case with any certainty. "In most cases, we just don't know" why a shark attacks someone, Lowe said. "As you can imagine, it is very difficult to discern the motivation of the shark without detailed information of the situation prior to the bite."
Man Killed by Great White at Beach Near Auckland, New Zealand
In February 2013, a great white shark killed a 47-year-old man off Muriwai Beach, near Auckland, New Zealand. The attack took place around 1:30pm local time. Aerial footage from One News appears to show the shark shortly afterwards. CNN reported: The attack took place off a popular beach west of Auckland as people gathered there to enjoy the summer sunshine. The victim was swimming 200 meters Muriwai Beach, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from central Auckland when the 12-to-14-foot shark struck. By the time police officers reached the swimmer floating off a New Zealand beach, it was already too late: a large shark was biting the lifeless body.[Source: Jethro Mullen, CNN, February 27, 2013]
The shark that attacked the swimmer was a great white, according to Russell Clark, a paramedic from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter service, which responded to the emergency at the beach. “We saw him rolling around, there was blood everywhere on the water,” Pio Mose, who was fishing nearby, told local broadcaster 3 News. Mose said he believed at least two other sharks had joined in the frenzy around the body after a few minutes.
Police officers and life guards on the scene went out in inflatable boats. When they fired at the shark they saw by the body, it “rolled over and disappeared,” said Inspector Shawn Rutene. Following the death, police closed the beach and several others nearby. Auckland Council said it expected the area to remain closed for the next few days.
Reuters reported: Witnesses said police and a rescue helicopter fired shots at the shark. “We saw the shark fin, and the next minute, boom, the attack came. There was blood everywhere on the water,” eye witness Pio Mosie was quoted by local news website Stuff.co.nz as saying. “They fired six or seven shots to the shark, three from the police helicopter and a few shots from the lifeguard. I don’t know if they killed the shark or not,” he added. The head of the local volunteer lifeguard service was quoted as saying they had confirmed that “one or two” sharks were spotted, but none had been seen since the man’s body was removed from the water. [Source: Reuters, February 27, 2013]
According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation fatal attacks in the country’s beaches have been rare. Fourteen fatal attacks have been reported since records began around 1837, with non-fatal shark attacks averaging around two a year. The last attack linked with a death was in 2009, when a kayaker was mauled by a great white in the nearby Coromandel Peninsula, although whether the victim drowned before the attack has been disputed.
New Zealand Great White Shark Victim Suffered “Unsurvivable Blood Loss”
In January 2021, 19-year-old Kaelah Marlow was attacked and killed by a great white shark at Waihī Beach, about 130 kilometers southeast of Auckland. The New Zealand Herald reported: Marlow was swimming with a group of friends when she was attacked by a 2.8 meter (9-foot) great white shark. The incident happened shortly after the teenager’s friends had returned to shore as they felt the current had become too strong, a coroner’s report said. The group had been swimming between the flags and the area was being patrolled by lifeguards at the time. The friends had been about 100 meters from the beach when they decided to head back. However, Marlow did not follow. [Source: New Zealand Herald, November 16, 2022]
The report describes how lifeguards had been watching the group and a decision was eventually made for an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) to head out to Marlow to check on her. When the IRB was launched, the young woman was said to be about 300 meters to 400 meters away and did not look to be in any distress or “obvious difficulty,” according to the report.
Things took a turn for the worse, however, when Marlow was suddenly attacked by a shark before lifeguards had reached her. A friend described seeing Marlow “panicking” and felt she was caught in a rip. “Kaelah was really panicking and waving her arm around in the water before being pulled into the boat,” the friend said. “Lifeguards reached Kaelah while she was conscious and calling for help and yelling ‘shark’,” the decision says. “Lifeguards lifted her into the boat and quickly transported her to shore and signalled for help.” The attack was described as a “single massive bite”.
Another witness described seeing someone in the water “and something in the water around the person, which he thought at the time was seaweed or some other people”. “He then watched from shore as the lifeguards pulled a limp body from the water into the IRB and immediately came back to the beach.” The man helped lifeguards pull the boat onto shore. Marlow had “significant injuries” to her right thigh. The man applied pressure to the wound with his hands while a lifeguard applied a tourniquet. The woman was making noises but not responding to voices and she appeared to suffer a small seizure.”
A lifeguard recalled the moment they reached Marlow on an IRB and heard her “start to yell and scream”. “She saw lots of blood in the water and the woman was yelling that she had been bitten by a shark. They could see that she had suffered a massive bite to her right leg. She lost consciousness as they drove the boat into the shore.” The report said Marlow had suffered “massive blood loss in a very short space of time” and despite efforts to save her life, she died at the scene.
Coroner Michael Robb said there was nothing lifeguards could have done to prevent Kaelah Marlow’s death and that it was likely Marlow had already suffered “massive and unsurvivable blood loss” by the time lifeguards arrived and pulled her out of the water. Robb noted that great whites could be found throughout New Zealand waters. Populations had increased in the Bay of Plenty and potentially the North Island.
Great White Sharks Attacks Boats in the Mediterranean
In August 1998, a 20 foot great white shark attacked a cabin cruiser 12 miles off shore in the Adriatic Sea. The shark was captured on video by Stefano Catalani, an amateur fisherman, when it attacked his boat off the resort of Senigallia. As a result, authorities have banned swimming along much of the coast of the Marches region, from Marotta, 30 miles south of Rimini, to Civitanova, south of Ancona. [Source: Bruce Johnston, Telegraph Group]
Video footage of the attack against Catalani's 30-foot boat was shown on Italian television. The white shark besieged the cruiser after the fisherman and his son Nicola, 10, caught a sand shark and strapped it to the side of the boat. Attracted by its blood, the white shark suddenly appeared in the water alongside. Catalani said: "All at once, I saw this large greyish fin." After seizing a container with bait, the shark then turned its attention to the small shark. But after devouring it, the white shark began circling the boat. Fascinated, Catalani filmed the entire incident from the bridge, and only headed back to port at the urging of his son. [Ibid]
In September 1999, a great white shark attacked a boat, chomping up a freshly caught tuna dangling over its edge in the Mediterranean. The skipper of the boat, the Coca Cola, Elevio Mazzagufo, said the shark tried to take a bite out of his boat after lunching on the tuna he'd just reeled in. “It looked like an elephant,'' he said. “In 30 years as a fisherman, I've never seen anything like it.' The great white appeared to be about 23 feet long, just 13 feet shorter than the Coca Cola itself. I shot at it with a speargun. But the dart just bounced off its skin.'' [Source: AP]
In the Mediterranean, there have been 23 documented encounters with great whites since 1900, including one in 1909 in which the remains of two adults and one child inside a 15 foot female caught off the coast of Sicily. A great white reportedly sunk a fishing boat by biting a hole in it off of Nova Scotia.
Image Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated March 2023