A handful of well-publicized shark encounters in the waters off some of our favorite coasts have left sea kayakers watching their dorsals. Headline stories like Great White Shark Menaces Kayakers suggest “a disturbing trend” of increasing attack frequency in paddling hotspots like Southern California and Australia’s Surf Coast.

Reality is a lot less sensational. According to statistics from a six-year period analyzed by the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, beach attendance and shark attacks increased in nearly exact parallel. The so-called trend likely reflects the increasing number of paddlers on the water rather than a rise in aggressive behavior among shark populations.

Still, there’s undeniable drama in such reports. Witness expedition paddler Sean Morley’s terrifying pursuit—“it was like a cat with a mouse”—by a suspected blue shark on his solo crossing in SoCal’s Channel Islands. Or the great white, also in California, that chomped local distance paddler Duane Strosaker’s wooden kayak and held it in its jaws for a few seconds before “gently letting go.”

Encounters vs. attacks

Victoria Scott, a marine biologist, experienced shark diver and Director of Education with the Canadian Shark Conservation Society, says “shark encounter” is a more precise way to describe these marine muggings. “Sharks are incredibly effective hunters. If one was to attack a sea kayaker there is no doubt the shark would win every time,” she says.

The two most common culprits in shark attacks and encounters—great whites and tigers—hunt from below. To these sharks, a sea kayaker on the surface may look like a seal or sea lion. Scott says sharks will usually investigate before deciding to attack. This is where the bumping and sometimes nibbling come in. Sharks use their mouths to determine if something is potentially edible. Kayaks, and even humans, are usually discarded as not tasty.

Strosaker’s encounter was a classic example of this bite and test behavior. “There wasn’t a hard impact… its mouth wrapped halfway around the hull. It seemed relaxed,” Strosaker recalls.

Do sharks attack kayaks?

Though they are rare, true shark attacks on kayaks do happen. According to the Global Shark Attack File, 21 have been recorded since the early 1900s. The only fatalities in that period were Malibu, California, paddlers Tamara McAllister and Roy Stoddard, who may have paddled into an area where sharks were feeding and been confused with prey.

How to avoid a shark encounters

Practice these precautions to stay shark-safe: Avoid blood in the water and slicks from fishing boats. Keep away from cloudy river mouths and suspect waters at dusk and dawn—prime hunting times. To avoid being mistaken for a meal, stay away from large groups of fish, seals or sea lions.

If you do see a shark, don’t try to paddle away. Your splashing paddle could make you look like an injured seal and attract more attention. If a shark is becoming aggressive, a sharp rap on the snout with your paddle may deter it.

“The very remote possibility of a shark encounter should not outweigh the adventure and beauty of paddling on the ocean,” Scott summarizes. “If you are investigated by one of these animals, paddle away with the knowledge that you have experienced something very special.”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I also had a fun shark encounter on a 6 week trip up the Australian east coast in the late 90’s. A Tiger shark as long as my kayak went under me a few times before bumping the side of my kayak more aggressively. I didn’t hang around and paddled into shore and it followed me into quite shallow water before leaving me alone.

  • The published data of the Shark Attack File is fraudulent.
    Its based on shark attacks to population size so if the centre of Australia in the desert has a population boom shark rates actually go down. Convenient.
    To make it worse their 2018 publication considering Australian population to 2018 deliberately did not include the 2 worst years for shark attack in northern NSW a couple of years before.
    Convenient, and fraudulent all in one.
    This month March 2021 my wife was almost flattened by a shark when she was in a 16 foot ocean kayak in Moreton Bay Brisbane but good paddle skills put her back. She has had that before with an attack by a male sea lion North of Vancouver in the winter and that animal has probably been put down quietly now. When I was 16 in 1966 in Sydney Harbour a bull shark flattened me off my sailing skiff and had another go at me but I made it to shore.
    Queensland fishing operators have noted more sharks than ever yet the as the claims of shark reduction by Griffith Uni is based on Shark Control drumlines and dolphins have ben taking baits off drumlines since the early 1990s and everyone knows, so of course there are fewer sharks according to the Fraudulent scientist.
    Normal people know that no bait no shark catch. Far to hard for the save-the-shark academics.
    Yep kayaking is getting more dangerous and its due to more sharks, not less sharks as claimed.
    Stand up against this rubbish.

  • I live on Kauai Hawaii and go hoe paddle at least 5 times week 3 miles offshore round trip 6 miles more if I do the loop around the anchored boats in kalapaki bay. I see Māno’s every time I go out. They usually circle your kayak I talk to them with respects my amakua. I tell um I respect them our my brothers and sisters and I’m borrowing your moana Kai for awhile I mean yo no harm and you have my upmost respect and your a part of my ohana being my amakua. These tigers are bigger than the kayak, all tigers I’ve been in Hawaiian waters for 65 years surfing skin diving ,night diving I encounter these big beautiful animals at least 85 percent of the time I’m out there. They don’t mean any harm you just have to respect them and don’t panic if they come around . They’ll leave on thier own they know as well as you do we are sharing the moana Kai as brothers and sisters with peace Hawaiian style

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