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Kayak Shark Attacks | A Look at the Numbers

Great White Shark underwater
Image courtesy of Ron Daniels from Great White Divers

The ocean is home to plenty of wild and colorful creatures. Out of all of them though nothing is as striking or memorable as the Shark. Sharks have been memorialized in myth and lore throughout time because of their unforgettable jaws, streamlined shape, and admirable nature. The Hawaiian Shark God Kamohoali’i is King of the Sharks and guardian of the Hawaiian Isles. Fijian fishermen worship Dakuwaqa, the Shark God guardian of the sea, who protects them from evils at sea. Societal reverence for sharks is a healthy attitude that promotes conservation and protection of these unfairly demonized creatures.

However those feelings probably aren’t at the forefront of your mind if you find yourself being circled by a toothy shark in the open ocean. Seeing an exposed dorsal fin swimming towards you activates a primal fear that hearkens back to when we were cavemen running from sabertooths. If you’re floating in the ocean and see a shark approaching a very healthy flight or fight response will kick in pretty quickly. On land, however, fear of sharks has lead to misinformation that’s resulted in undeserved characteristics and destructive actions aimed at sharks.

The purpose of this article is to dive deep into the numbers behind your risk of becoming shark bait at sea. Kayaks offer greater protection against sharks than surfboards and other personal watercraft. But paddlers aren’t immune to shark attacks. And there have been several noteworthy cases that offer noteworthy lessons. We hope to not only enlighten you as to the dangers underneath your bow, but also offer some tips on avoiding them as well.

Great white

There are 440 different species of sharks worldwide; and out of those only one is responsible for the majority of attacks on humans.The largest predatory fish on Earth, the Great White Shark, is responsible for more attacks on humans than the next three species combined (tiger, bull, and blacktip). The International Shark Attack File, maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History, compiles and collects shark attack data worldwide going back to 1580. Out of 828 recorded shark attacks on humans Great Whites were responsible for a little over 39% (326) of which 52 (15.9%) were fatal.

Great White Sharks are incredible creatures that are a sight to behold, from a distance. Carcharodon carcharias grows to between 15 and 20 feet and can weigh close to 2 tons. The largest great white shark recorded, nicknamed “Deep Blue”, was tagged 20 years ago in Mexico and is estimated to weigh over 2.5 tons. Needless to say your average paddler won’t be much of a challenge for a fish 20x the size of an average man. And with 300 teeth to boot. In fact the only thing to give Great Whites any real trouble are other Great Whites, and Orcas. In a recent discovery Killer Whales have been found to hunt down Great Whites almost exclusively for their liver.

Big Fish

A mature Great White has the mass and power to capsize your kayak and tip you in the ocean. Other species do as well, and have, but it’s not as common. Tiger sharks are largely scavengers and Bull sharks mostly feed on fish and small sharks. Great whites actively target bigger prey such as seals and baleen whales. Just recently white sharks were observed as they took down a 40 ton humpback whale over 60′ long in the waters surrounding South Africa.

Far more common however are attacks on the white’s preferred snack: seals. Great Whites chow down on a variety of seal sepcies, including the Elephant Seal: the largest of the pinnipeds. Mature southern elephant seal bulls can reach up to 16′ long and weigh up to 4,000 lbs. All of this is to point out that you and your 12′ ocean kayak wouldn’t be much of a challenge for this apex predator

For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on the Great White. The Great White has a vast territory covering multiple continents and can be found in waters between 54 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas other sharks involved in attacks on humans are largely tropical or warm water. The Great White’s predatory habits and wide distribution make it a more worrisome threat to paddlers than other species.

Where do Shark Attacks Happen

Great White Shark observed habitat
Great White Distribution according to GBIF.

The United States has had more shark attacks on its shores than any other country. 36% of all recorded shark attacks have occured in the US. Australia claims the second spot with 21.42%, and South Africa rounds out third with 9.04%. Unsurprisingly all three countries feature long coastlines, dense coastal populations, and are known territories of white sharks.

Great Whites are found on both the East and West Coasts of the U.S. But attacks are far more common in the Pacific. The increased frequency of attacks is due to a few reasons. The seal population on the East Coast is concentrated in more northerly regions near the Canadian Arctic and New York which aren’t exactly hotspots for beachgoers. Further south Great Whites tend to stay farther offshore in pursuit of pelagic finfish. Shark attacks in general are far more common than the Pacific. But most cases involve smaller Black Tip sharks which are typically less severe; only one recorded death by Black Tip has ever been recorded.

Seals on the West Coast of the U.S. are more evenly distributed along the entire coastline. Surfing is also far more popular due to the abundance of much gnarlier waves. Both of these factors put people and sharks closer together, which inevitably leads to more serious attacks.

Kayak Shark Attack Statistics

Great Whites aren’t necessarily the smartest creatures out there, but they’re also not dumb. They’re very adept at identifying potential prey and chasing it. Most shark attacks against humans are accidental; white sharks mistook a surfer or swimmer for a seal and let go after the first bite. Sharks need the energy provided by the high body fat present in most seals which can near 50% of body weight during certain seasons. Humans comparatively average between 18% and 31% body fat which doesn’t offer nearly the same payoff.

Kayaks offer a keen advantage in that they keep its occupants out of the water; and they don’t look like seals (longer ones at least). However rare attacks are though, they do still happen. The majority of interactions between sharks and kayakers are nerve-racking but harmless. If a shark does happen to bump your bow at sea you’ve We analyzed information maintained by the Shark Research Institute, a global marine conservation non profit organization, to better understand the risks posed to paddlers. Out of all recorded attacks only 22% resulted in a mortality. Kayakers make up only 0.35% of recorded fatalities attributable to sharks.

Timeline of Attacks

Out of 6,522 recorded shark incidents between 1779 and May of 2020 only 59, or .9%, involved a kayak. From this subset 9 incidents were thrown out because they were either provoked by the paddler (i.e. hooking a shark) or were unconfirmed. Only 10%, or 5 cases, of the 50 confirmed kayak shark attacks have proven fatal. We’ve assembled these 5 cases into a timeline below. These stories are tragic, but serve to illustrate the need to always remain diligent and prepared on the water.


Shark attacks on humans are incredibly rare occurrences; however they have grown in frequency over the last few decades. Population growth and water sports surge in popularity puts more and more people into contact with shark’s natural habitats. Even though the incident rate is trending upward there’s still an incredibly low chance that you’ll ever be bitten or attacked by a shark of any kind. In 2019 only 2 people died from a shark attack worldwide. For Americans the lifetime risk of dying from a shark attack is 1 in 3,748,067.

To put that into perspective, and allay any fears you may have, we’ve put together a list of mortality factors that are far more probable. Lifetime risk is calculated by dividing a country’s population by the number of deaths (by incident) and then dividing again by the average life expectancy for a given year. In order to simplify reporting we’ve limited our research to the U.S. The graphic below shows how much more likely you are to die from other animals than you are a shark attack. For example you’re 18x more likely to buy the farm from a cow than you are a shark.

In fact the mere act of kayaking itself is considerably riskier than shark attacks. We’ve covered US kayaking statistics extensively before; but we haven’t spent as much time with our friends across the pond. In Australia paddlecraft are the leading type of vessel involved in non-powered drowning accidents, accounting for 33.3% of the 473 maritime related deaths between 2005 and 2015. Based off 2015 figures your average Aussie has a 1 in 6,284 lifetime risk of dying from kayaking. At any given point in time most people have around a 1 in a 1,000 risk of dying. Kayak shark attacks present a near zero risk of fatality. And that emphasizes our next point.

Kayaking is Relatively Safe

The numbers above should make you feel better about paddling past dorsal fins. Kayaks provide a significant material barrier between you and any sets of jaws. In addition most sea-faring kayaks are much longer than the average surfboard. Longer hulls provide better stability and speed which is critical in big water; a 12′ long hull is usually the starting point for ocean bound yaks. Comparatively surfers tend to size down to shorter boards for their increased agility. The downside to shorter boards and yaks is that your underwater silhouette is much more seal-like, and that much more appealing.

A 15′ Great White is certainly capable of taking on a full grown elephant seal; but that’s also a risky hunt. Larger animals are more likely to injure the shark, escape, or cause a greater expenditure of energy. Just like lions or tigers sharks are keen to preserve their energy and get away with an easy meal; which in most cases are smaller specimens: pups, juveniles, and sickly/injured seals. The shorter your kayak or surfboard the closer you are to shark snack size.

The value of being out of the water is highlighted by the ratio of injuries to encounters. Based off the data if you’re attacked by a shark in your kayak there’s a 75% chance you’ll get off scot-free. Swimmers, on the other hand, only escape shark attacks unscathed 0.69% of the time.

Preventing Shark Attacks

As rare as shark attacks are it’s still best practice to plan for the worst. To that end you should practice safe kayaking in general; keep your gear in good working order, your PFD secure, and let people know where you’re going.

If you find yourself in the water face to face with a great white there isn’t much you can do. Prior to that harrowing situation though we have a few tips.

Pay attention to shark reports

Most areas with frequent sharks visits have a monitoring system in place for large sharks. When one’s sighted beaches are temporarily closed and access is restricted. Depending on where you are these warnings may or may not be readily enforced. Regardless you should absolutely heed these warnings and stay out of the water. Kayaks are no match for an ornery shark; so don’t tempt fate.

Stay out of the water

It should be pretty obvious, but if you find yourself in shark infested waters then stay in the boat. Also remember to keep your extremities inside the vessel at all times. If you’re unfortunate enough to capsize or fall in then do everything in your power to get back on, or in, the boat. Otherwise swim for a buoy, land, anything you can find. At this stage in the game you’re living on a prayer, so maybe say a few between strokes.

Have a first aid kit

Kayak first aid kits should be a standard part of your outfit. They’re typically equipped for the odd hook in the hand or sunburn. Band aids and aloe-vera aren’t going to be much help for you if you happen to escape a shark though. If you’re fortunate enough to escape a shark bite your next biggest risk is exsanguination, or bleeding out.

Once your out of the water the clock is ticking; your next priority is to get the bleeding under control. Add extra gauze rolls and a tourniquet to your kayak first aid kit. Tourniquets are typically an option of last resort. There’s usually a good chance the limb below a tourniquet won’t make it. But they are extremely effective in stopping bleeding and will buy you some time until help arrives.

Stay Out of Feeding Zones

According to National Geographic the majority of shark attacks take place within the first 100 feet from shore. Littoral zones are the preferred feeding ground for a large variety of fish. It’s also where seals tend to be their most vulnerable. They’re fighting the surf to get in/out from land and don’t have the space to outmaneuver a shark. All of these factors give sharks the upper hand in scoring an easy meal. Traversing the tidal zone is unavoidable for ocean paddlers. But keep an eye out for churning water or fleeing fish/seals. Those are typical signs of something big in the water.

Overview on Kayak Shark Attacks

Photo courtesy of Shark Diving Xperts

We understand the fear behind shark attacks. The notion of getting snacked on by a massive animal with sharp teeth that you can neither see nor hear coming is simply terrifying. But your fear shouldn’t deter you from grabbing a paddle. Kayakers are far safer than surfers and swimmers from curious sharks. Attacks on kayaks are so rare that you’re more likely to walk away with an unforgettable story than bite marks.

In fact sharks have mroe to fear from humans than the other way around. For every human killed by a shark roughly 2,000,000 sharks are killed by humans. For a fish that’s been worshiped as a demigod and charged with protecting sailors we certainly haven’t returned the favor. As paddlers (and citizens) we’re responsible for protecting the ecosystems we recreate in and maintaining them for future generations.

One of the easiest ways to contribute to keeping sharks safe is to stay out of their way. Don’t fall victim to misinformation or unfounded fears. And stop people from perpetuating bad myths. Practice safe kayaking and always plan for the worst case scenario. Follow these guidelines and you’ll keep a healthy distance between you and the taxman, and keep him collecting for years to come.