Surfing and Sharks: Everything You Need to Know

Have you ever watched Sharktopus or Jaws? Chances are, you’ve experienced the gripping fear instilled by at least one of these films. Since the release of Jaws in 1975, its impact on people’s psyche has endured, leaving lingering impressions that persist despite some attempts to dismiss them. 

This iconic movie, and the 180 others listed on IMDb with similar themes, has contributed to an unfair portrayal of sharks as relentless monsters, scaring the hell out of many people and making them stay out of the water, including surfers and aspiring surfers alike. Shockingly, 96% of these movies depict sharks as greatly threatening.

Unfortunately, this cinematic trend continues, with new releases emerging annually, further tarnishing the reputation of these creatures. It prompts one to wonder if the directors’ girlfriends were snatched by shark ancestors, sparking an ongoing mission to vilify these misunderstood animals. 

If you’ve arrived here seeking the truth about surfing and sharks, eager to dispel unfounded fears and misconceptions, then you’re in the right place. This is a journey to separate fact from fiction—a ride you won’t soon forget.

What is the Real Story of Sharks?

Beyond the well-known Great White Sharks, Mako Sharks, and Megalodon often depicted in movies, the reality of shark diversity extends far beyond what popular media portrays. Contrary to the prevailing narrative, sharks comprise a staggering 500 species, each exhibiting unique sizes and dietary preferences. 

Many species actively navigate coastal areas in pursuit of food, while others opt for shallower waters (shark nurseries) to keep their offspring or locate sustenance. And they said, “Sharks are mindless predators”?

In regions such as the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, nearshore waters teem with diverse shark populations, including Atlantic blacktip and spinner sharks. Meanwhile, the Caribbean Sea frequently hosts sightings of reef sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerhead sharks. Far from being simple creatures, sharks display remarkable specialization, with some even capable of forming social bonds and friendships.

Contrary to common assumptions, shark attacks on humans are infrequent. Sharks do not eat humans. The likelihood of succumbing to a lightning strike stands at 1 in 79,746, while the probability of a shark attack is a remarkably low 1 in 4,332,817. This statistical perspective may evoke thoughts of Barry Allen. Don’t tell me you don’t know him.

Sharks and Surfers: The Statistics

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) delved into shark–human cases in 2022, revealing 108 cases, including 57 verified unprovoked and 32 provoked bites. Notably, the 57 unprovoked incidents marked a decrease from the annual average of 70 observed from 2017 to 2021.

While the data indicates a rise in shark attacks, it also provides insights into potential causes. The increasing human influence and disruption in ocean environments, often lacking responsible or safe practices, contribute to this trend—an issue to be addressed in the latter part of this post. 

When looking at the seventy years leading up to 2020, the number of unprovoked shark attacks rose from fifty in the 1950s to more than eighty in 2020. With 0.012 attacks per million in 1950 and 0.010 in 2020, the rates of unprovoked shark attacks per million humans, however, are still very consistent. Therefore, there’s no need for undue concern, and you will be fine.

Why Do Sharks Attack Surfers?

Sharks may attack surfers for various reasons, and it’s not as simple as Great Whites having impaired vision and mistaking surfers for sea lions. Misguided assumptions, even from those who haven’t directly encountered sharks, contribute to unnecessary fear.

One factor is that the surf zone aligns with the sharks’ prey, leading to occasional misinterpretations of surfers as potential targets. Sometimes, sharks investigate surfers to determine if they are food, resulting in attacks that deliver up to a staggering 40,000 pounds per square inch, swiftly disengaging bone and flesh. Once the shark realizes its mistake, it releases its grip.

Surfers with boards resembling seals, especially when viewed from the shark’s perspective below, can be another trigger for attacks. Additionally, any disturbance in the water’s surface, such as paddling, splashing, or other disruptions, attracts sharks—naturally curious creatures, particularly when hungry. In these instances, the shark might bite the disturbance, inadvertently causing harm to the surfer.

How to Surf Responsibly

Surfing responsibly isn’t just a catchphrase—it’s a lifestyle that brings unparalleled satisfaction and a host of benefits. To truly grasp these rewards, you must experience them firsthand.

Be acutely aware of your environmental impact. When shopping for surfing gear, opt for eco-friendly alternatives such as Sticky Bumps Surf Wax, a biodegradable and natural option, avoiding chemical-based ones that harm marine life.

Dispose of your waste responsibly—a crucial one. Leave nature as you found it; after all, you’re a surfer, not a marine biologist. Respect wildlife and Mother Earth may just convey a message to the sharks on your behalf. Support ocean cleanup initiatives and local conservation efforts, recognizing that you played a part in the mess before you embraced eco-friendly products.

Every action you take matters. You can preserve the ecosystem and ensure that future generations may appreciate the beauty and excitement of surfing.

Surfing Safely: Navigating The Waves With Awareness 

As previously mentioned, sharks tend to linger where their food is abundant—places you should avoid. Cross out locations with high populations of sea lions, seals, and other shark prey from your surfing spots. Steer clear of waters showing signs of animal or human waste, treating such areas as though it is the plague. Swim near other people and the coast. You’ll feel more at ease.

If you have an injury, get medical attention for it—not in the water—as water is not a miracle remedy. Don’t risk getting bitten for no reason. Stay out of the water at dawn and dusk as well. 

Shark deterrents come in magnetic, electric, and other forms. You can employ shark deterrents if you wish. However, some individuals might not want to use them for fear that they will, paradoxically, attract sharks. 

Electric-field-generating deterrents are very effective. So, for example, if you go with the Ocean Guardian Freedom Surf+, for as long as up to 60% shark bite protection lasts, you’ll be the marine equivalent of Batman. Keep in mind that no shark deterrent is 100% successful, and spread awareness of surfing safety among as many people as you can. Lastly, in case of an emergency, have your phone close, if possible.

What do I do if I Encounter a Shark While Surfing?

If you’ve upset Mother Earth by littering or being overly enthusiastic, leading Father Shark to approach or attack, handling this situation involves two phases: Immediate Actions and Post-Encounter Steps.

Immediate Actions

Remain calm under all circumstances. Slowly retreat and alert fellow surfers. If the shark approaches further, consider using your surfboard as a barrier—it might not always be feasible, but it can mitigate damage and even scare the shark away.

Post-Encounter Steps

Swiftly and calmly exit the water, especially if bitten. Attend to your wound by tying it up and applying pressure. Inform fellow surfers about the incident, enabling them to assist you in getting to the hospital.

Remember, such incidents are exceptionally rare.

How can Surfers Overcome Fear of Sharks?

Fear is natural, especially in surfing, where concerns extend beyond sharks to drowning and colliding with rocks. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or an aspiring surfer, fear can hinder you from catching that coveted big wave. It’s crucial to break through this fear, and the power of positive mental imagery can be a transformative tool.

Hold onto positive thoughts as you approach and engage in surfing, gradually replacing haunting sea monster memories with uplifting mental images. 

In 2003, surfer and writer Bethany Hamilton faced a shark attack, resulting in the loss of her left arm. Despite initial doubts, she returned to the surfboard within weeks after her recovery, confronting fear head-on.

Hamilton didn’t let adversity dictate her path, stating, “Overcoming my fears of sharks took years... I would surf closer to the beach and focus on catching waves, a gradual approach that helped me cope with the fear.” 

Learning and consistent practice play pivotal roles in boosting confidence. Begin with small steps, starting in the shallows and progressively expanding your comfort zone.

Hamilton advises, “Take that baby step ladder approach to build up courage slowly. After a while, that fear dissipates, and you find yourself surfing in various spots without hesitation.”

Shark Conservation and Protection

The sensationalized depictions of sharks in popular media have obscured the harsh reality that sharks themselves are in significant peril. Sharks, similar to other species, face natural threats from predators such as other sharks, whales, and seals (leopard seals). They can also fall victim to illnesses and become hosts for parasites. 

Additionally, sharks are confronted with the detrimental consequences of overfishing, pollution, and the heinous practice of shark finning. In this practice, driven by the demand for shark fins in Chinese medicine and shark fin soup, fishermen catch sharks solely to harvest their fins. Subsequently, these finless sharks are callously thrown back into the water, where they often endure a cruel fate of bleeding, starvation, or being slowly eaten by other marine creatures.

Despite their misrepresented image, sharks play a key role in maintaining the health and equilibrium of the ocean ecosystem. Serving as apex predators, they regulate the populations of species lower in the food chain. Even Peter Benchley, the author of the notorious anti-shark movie Jaws, acknowledged this, stating, “Without sharks, you take away the apex predator of the ocean, and you destroy the entire food chain.”

While organizations such as WWF and NOAA Fisheries are actively involved in sustainable shark management, you, as a surfer, given your close connection to the ocean, have a unique opportunity to contribute to conservation efforts. It’s crucial to recognize the importance of saving these creatures and to advocate for a more accurate representation of sharks in the media, shedding light on the broader field of shark science.

“Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”― Peter Benchley

James Davis

Written by James Davis

I'm a true California local, and I've spent my life riding the waves along our stunning coastline. Surfing has always been my greatest love, and in my writing, I try to capture its genuine essence. My words aim to transport you into the heart of the surf culture, where the ocean and surfers come together in perfect harmony.

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