Surfing is an undeniably fun sport that offers countless benefits to those who do it but it’s also one of the most dangerous sports out there when things really go wrong.
Immersing yourself in the world’s oceans you’ll end up surfing with all sorts of marine life, including sharks!
While most species of sharks are harmless there are a few you need to look out for that pose a serious risk to surfers.
We’ll be taking a deep dive into surfing and sharks to help you understand how dangerous sharks really are when you’re surfing, which sharks to look out for, how to reduce the risk of a shark attack and some famous surfers that have had run-ins with the ocean’s number one apex predator.
How likely is a shark attack while surfing?
The idea of surfing and sharks being some sort of global issue is far from the truth.
The odds of being attacked by a shark while surfing is actually incredibly low, according to the Florida Museum there is a 1 in 4,332,817 chance of dying because of a shark attack with between 70 and 100 attacks a year leading to approximately 5 deaths.
This incredibly low number when compared to the estimated 35 million surfers globally shows that surfing and sharks don’t cross paths as much as we’d think.
But humans aren’t the only land mammals that visit our oceans. If you’re worried about your four-legged friends and sharks check out our short read on do dogs attract/attack sharks.
Which sharks are most dangerous to surfers
Let’s take a look at the ocean’s most dangerous predators and which sharks you’re most likely to run into while you surf.
Three species of shark known as the ‘big three’ makeup nearly all recorded attacks on surfers. They are:
Great White Shark
Bull sharks and surfers
Bull sharks (sometimes known as the Zambezi Shark) are one of the most dangerous species of shark in the world. They can be found in warm, shallow waters all over the world, from the western Atlantic Ocean to the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Bull sharks are aggressive and territorial, so if you’re surfing in their territory, there is a possibility they will target you.
Their teeth are serrated and razor sharp with up to 350 teeth packed into their mouth.
They prefer to stay close to shore, where there is a good supply of food available, hunting primarily small fish and other marine animals that live in shallow waters such as estuaries and bays.
Bull sharks have been observed swimming freely up rivers and into lakes, which is unusual behaviour for a shark species that typically prefers saltwater environments.
Tiger sharks and surfers
Tiger sharks are one of the largest sharks in the world and they’re also responsible for several fatal attacks on surfers.
Much like bull sharks, they spend lots of their time hunting in shallow water making run-ins with surfers at shallow reefs and river mouths a realistic risk.
Most attacks by Tiger Sharks on surfers occur in poor water quality after rain, with river mouth point breaks making up most of the attack locations.
Famed for their ability to eat anything they can fit into their mouths they indulge in a varied diet including sea turtles, dolphins, and other sharks.
Tiger sharks are incredibly important to marine ecosystems, helping maintain a balance by keeping prey populations in check.
Their varied diet makes them excellent indicators of environmental health with a consistent tiger shark population indicating a healthy food cycle.
Great Whites and surfers
You can’t talk about surfing and sharks without mentioning the Great White, the largest predatory fish in the world.
It has lots of names including white shark, white pointer, or simply great white but its menacing stare is unmistakable.
They can be all oceans, from the surface to the deep sea. Great white sharks are thought to live for up to 70 years and reach maturity between 26 (male) and 30 (female) years of age.
Females of the species can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh up to staggering 5,000 pounds. Their go-to prey is seals and sea lions but they’ll happily add sea turtles, fish and even dolphins to the menu if required.
Despite their fearsome reputation, great whites are not man-eaters. In fact, surfers are not on their menu at all, opting for a strictly marine diet apart from very occasional cases of mistaken identity.
Most attacks by Great White sharks on surfers are considered ‘test bites’, a tactic employed by the shark to try and work out how edible something is.
This relatively unassuming nibble can mean catastrophic injuries for an unsuspecting surfer. Many scientists theorise that the outline of a surfer and their surfboard from below is not too unlike that of a plump seal swimming across the surface.
How to avoid sharks while you’re surfing
While you can’t completely avoid sharks while you’re surfing there are some tips you can follow to try and avoid them as much as possible:
- Don’t wear bright colours. Sharks are attracted to bright colours, so you should avoid wearing anything that’s red or yellow.
- Be aware of your surroundings, if you see a shark, don’t panic, just exit the water while calmly alerting other surfers and swimmers of the issue. Once you’re out of the ocean make sure to inform any lifeguards on duty.
- Don’t surf at night, sharks are more active at night than during the day so avoid the ocean after sunset to minimise your chance of an unwanted run-in.
- Don’t splash around. Sharks can sense vibrations in the water from massive distances away and often investigate.
- Stay away from large groups of fish. Sharks will be drawn to the smell of all those fishy bodies in one place.
- Don’t surf after heavy rain. Debris washed down from the land and entering the water will decrease visibility making the chance of a ‘test bite’ much higher.
Using a shark repellent
Shark repellants are a fairly recent addition to the surfing and shark conversation.
They work by generating an electric field that sharks find extremely uncomfortable, making them quickly leave the area you’re surfing in.
Famous shark and surfer incidents
Surfers and sharks have had some well-documented run-ins with some of our sports top-level athletes coming face to face with the ocean’s most dangerous predator.
Mick Fanning’s shark attack while surfing at Jeffreys Bay
Jeffreys Bay is one of the most popular surfing destinations in South Africa, and it’s no wonder why. It’s got the perfect mix of waves and weather, which make it an ideal destination for a surf trip.
Shark cage diving is a popular activity in South Africa, especially around Jeffreys Bay. During the summer months (November through April), you can sign up with one of the many tour companies that offer this opportunity. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and includes snorkel gear and an inflatable boat ride out to where the sharks are known to congregate.
But what happens when there’s no cage between you and the shark? That’s exactly what happened to pro surfer Mick Fanning during the 2015 WSL J Bay Pro.
Mick Fanning, an Australian professional surfer who’s been featured in magazines like Surfer and Transworld Surf since 1994, has spent over a decade riding massive waves around the globe—and he’s never been attacked by a shark before or since (thankfully).
Bethany Hamilton was only 13 years old when she lost her left arm in a shark attack. She was surfing with her best friend Alana Blanchard off Kauai’s North Shore in 2003 when the shark bit off Bethany’s left arm above her elbow. Although this incident was extremely traumatic for Bethany, she didn’t let it stop her from living life to its fullest.
Since the incident, Bethany has continued to surf at a professional level being the stand-out at many world tour competition stops.
Head over to our short read on why are surfers attacked by sharks for more fascinating facts about the ocean’s greatest predator.
Answering your questions about surfing and sharks
We take a look at some of the most common questions we hear about sharks and surfing.
Are there sharks around you when you surf?
If you’re surfing in an ocean which contains shark species then there’s always a small chance a shark will be nearby when you’re surfing.
Do surfers worry about sharks while they’re surfing?
As we’ve learnt, the chances of a shark attack while you’re surfing are tiny, but the worry is always in the back of your mind when you surf in locations which are known for sharks, or worse, shark attacks.
What should you do if you see a shark while surfing?
If you think you see a shark while surfing you should try to inform other surfers while calmly exiting the water. Try to inform any relevant authorities to spread the word to other ocean users.
Why are surfers attacked by sharks?
Surfers spend disproportionate amounts of time in the ocean compared to the general public. This makes the likelihood of interactions with sharks much higher.