What kinds of sharks attack surfers?

Three types of sharks are responsible for the majority of attacks on surfers across the world, these are the great white, tiger and bull shark.

When it comes to surfing and sharks there will always be encounters purely due to the considerable lengths of time surfers spend in the waves.

Let’s take a closer look at the ‘big three’ responsible for most shark attacks on humans and why these particular species are so likely to attack surfers.

So what kinds of sharks attack surfers?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ocean’s most dangerous predators.

Great whites

When you think of great white sharks and surfers, what comes to mind? For most people, it’s probably something like this:

“A surfer paddling to catch a wave when suddenly a massive shark leaps out of the water and devours him whole.”

It’s not an inaccurate assessment—great white sharks are responsible for more deaths than any other shark. But is it accurate? Should we be afraid of them? Are they really giant, man-eating monsters that lurk under the surface waiting for their next meal?

Well…sort of. Great whites are indeed the largest predatory fish in the world, reaching lengths of up to 20 feet (6 meters) and weighing up to 5 tons (4 metric tons).

But despite their size, scientists say that great white attacks on humans are cases of mistaken identity because they don’t see us as food. They prefer hunting:

  • seals
  • sea lions
  • dolphins
  • other large ocean mammals

So why do attacks still happen? For the most part, attacks by great whites are simple mistakes. This theory is heavily backed up by the fact that most attacks by great whites are a single bite, the assumption being that they quickly realise that they’ve made a mistake and retreat below the waves.

Unfortunately as humans that one bite can mean an arm, a leg or even your life. Head over to our guide on why are surfers attacked by sharks to find out more factors that play into this tragic case of mistaken identity.

Tiger sharks

The tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is a large, powerful predator that can be found in a range of tropical and temperate waters across the world.

Large female tiger sharks can grow over 5m and 900kg, making them one of the largest species of shark in our oceans today. They’re second only to the great white in terms of fatal attacks on surfers and swimmers and for good reason.

Known as the ‘oceans garbage can’ they often visit shallow reefs, harbours, and canals in search of anything to devour from living prey to whale carcasses washed close to the shore.

This ferocious appetite often puts them in close proximity to humans which has led to the rise in attacks and fatalities.

In 2003 Bethany Hamilton a young pro surfer from Hawaii was attacked by a tiger shark and lost her arm at the very young age of 13. Despite this life-changing injury she still went on to become a professional surfer and an advocate for shark conservation across the globe.

Bull sharks

The bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) is a species of shark that can live in both saltwater and freshwater. Their range extends from the tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

They are known to live in many different habitats, including river mouths, bays, brackish waters, coastal areas, and estuaries. Bull sharks are well known for their aggressive natures and this has led to attacks in Jersey, Florida, Sydney and various rivers across India.

The average female bull shark measures between 8 and 10 feet long, but there has been a recorded specimen coming in at a gigantic 13ft. Add this to the fact they have the strongest bite power of any shark and you can see why this angry fish is forced to be reckoned with.

Thankfully attacks on surfers by bull sharks are relatively rare with the majority of attacks occurring in harbours and inlets far from the surf. Bull sharks have been reputed to take pets with people reporting dogs being attacked in some areas of the world. Head over to our short read, do dogs attract sharks to find out more.


Now you know what kinds of sharks attack surfers and why they make up the majority of shark attacks on surfers around the world.

It’s important to remember that all sharks are acting purely on instinct and while they might be portrayed as cold-blooded killers that hunt down humans this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Shark populations are plummeting among many species and they’ve never needed our help more than now. Head over to The Shark Trust to find out how you can help save these magnificent ocean creatures.