If you like to paddle on the open ocean or even protected coastal waterways, you’ll be sharing the waters with a wide variety of marine wildlife. Yes, that does include sharks of many different sizes and species.
In our opinion, sharks get a little bit of a bad reputation and they tend to inspire fear amongst even the most ocean-savvy people. Perhaps it all goes back to Steven Spielberg’s infamous production of Jaws, which is now more than 40 years old.
Sharks attacks, in general, are less common than getting into a car accident while you’re on your way to the beach. Nevertheless, the fear of sharks can be a real obstacle for new kayakers that have friends encouraging them to join in on their ocean kayaking expeditions.
While you’ll always feel safer if you have one of the best sea kayaks at your disposal, it might also help to know the truth about kayak shark attack statistics. So we’ll provide some cold hard data for you to peruse today.
We’ll also highlight a few of the most famous shark encounters involving kayakers so that you can learn from those stories. So let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- 1 Do Sharks Really Attack Kayaks?
- 2 Kayak Shark Attack Statistics
- 3 Famous Shark Encounters
- 4 Safety Tips For Avoiding Shark Attacks
- 5 Final Thoughts
- 6 Enjoyed Kayak Shark Attack Statistics & Famous Encounters? Share it with your friends so they too can follow the KayakHelp journey.
Do Sharks Really Attack Kayaks?
Unfortunately, we have to answer this question with a solid yes. Otherwise, you’ll go off and perform a simple Google search that will turn up plenty of videos and blogs of kayakers detailing their close encounters with sharks.
That being said, the reality is that sharks are much more likely to attack kayak anglers than recreational paddlers. As you can imagine, the lure of live bait (which many sportfishing kayak anglers use) can sometimes attract something a bit larger than what the angler was hoping to catch.
If you really don’t believe us, we’ll save you that extra step of opening up another tab and searching for kayak shark attack footage. Check out this slightly nerve-wracking video!
Kayak Shark Attack Statistics
Now that you know that a kayak shark attack is possible, it’s time to read into the fine print to find out how possible it really is. These are some of the best shark attack statistics we could scrounge up for kayakers.
Location, Location, Location
According to data obtained from the International Shark Attack File, about 36% of all shark attacks recorded globally occurred along either the eastern or western coasts of the United States. Yes, there are sharks along both coastlines.
It is, however, worth noting that attacks are slightly more common on the west coast than on the east coast. Part of the reason for this is that the west coast’s seal population is more evenly distributed along the entire coastline.
Surfing is also slightly more popular on the west coast of the United States than on the east coast. This puts humans in closer proximity to the natural habitat of seals and, as a result, the natural hunting grounds for some of the ocean’s most aggressive shark species.
After the U.S., Australia (~21%) and South Africa (~9%) have the second and third highest frequencies of shark attacks globally. Like the U.S., both of these countries feature long coastlines, dense coastal populations, and some of the best surf breaks in the world.
A Grand Total
Now that you know where most of the world’s shark attacks occur, let’s widen our perspective just a bit. Shark attacks have been recorded for a surprisingly long-time, which gives us pretty reliable records dating all the way back to just a few years after the United States established its independence.
Since 1779, there have been a little more than 6,522 shark attacks recorded in the United States. This breaks down to a little more than 27 general shark attacks per year.
Of those 6,522, however, only 59 attacks involved a kayaker. That equates to less than one percent and breaks down to less than 1 kayak shark attack every four years.
If we look at all shark attacks (involving kayakers or not), the mortality rate for victims is about 22 percent. These fatalities are usually the result of a surfer or swimmer being mistaken for a seal and then bleeding out once the shark releases the person after the initial bite.
In fact, sharks rely heavily on the excess body fat (more than 50%) that they consume when they eat a seal. By comparison, most humans average somewhere between 18 and 31 percent body fat, and you better bet a shark will know that after that initial bite.
Kayakers, on the other hand, have been involved in only 0.35 percent of fatalities attributable to shark attacks. This is largely because the biggest cause for shark attacks on humans is a case of mistaken identity.
Because kayakers are usually sitting in a larger personal watercraft that is often a bright color (instead of the dark wetsuits that bear a similar resemblance to a seal), they are less likely to be mistaken for a shark’s preferred food.
On the rare occasion that sharks do attack kayakers, there is also a bit of a safeguard between you and the shark. The shark usually hits or bites the hard plastic of your kayak before it gets anywhere near the more sensitive body parts that we’re sure you would like to protect.
Famous Shark Encounters
1. A Malibu Mystery
This famous shark attack story takes us all the way back to January of 1989 and it’s based in Malibu, California. On January 26th, a woman named Tamara McAllister and her boyfriend departed for a day-paddle down to Paradise Cove.
They were experienced paddlers in the ocean off the Malibu coastline and Tamara’s boyfriend was an expert paddler. During the investigation that would later ensue, a local neighbor noted observing a thrashing near an offshore buoy that Tamara and her boyfriend were known to frequent.
The neighbor noted several seals leaping out of the water as if to avoid a threat, but hadn’t sighted any kayaks in the area. Tamara and her boyfriend never returned to the beach that day and their kayaks were found more than 24 hours later.
The kayaks were lashed together, which suggested the couple had stopped for a bite to eat or a swim. Tamara’s body was found off the Ventura County coast 10 days later and it showed deep bite marks on her upper thighs.
Tamara’s boyfriend’s body was never recovered, but experts did analyze the bite marks and holes in the kayaks. After this analysis, they estimated that an object weighing at least 1,984 pounds and traveling at a speed of 10.5 miles per hour was needed to cause the sort of damage they found.
At the conclusion of the investigation, it was reported that authorities believed that a great white shark more than 16 feet long had caused both the damage to the kayaks and the fatal wounds to Tamara’s body.
2. A Maui Mistake
This next story dates back to March of 1999 and it takes us to the beautiful Hawaiian Island of Maui. Maui is well-known for its tropical waters, great surf, and exceptional inland hiking, but for the unfortunate couple in our story, their activity of choice was kayaking.
Nahid Davoodabai was visiting Maui with her husband and, in fact, they were there to celebrate a belated honeymoon. As many Maui visitors have before and since then, they rented a tandem sit-on-top kayak for a fun day trip.
Unfortunately, strong trade winds came up that day, and soon Nahid and her husband were pushed miles out to sea and far away from their launch point. Night eventually fell and the winds continued to cool the air temperature.
The ocean was much warmer than the air at this point, so Nahid dipped down into the water to stay warm. As she floated holding onto her kayak, a shark bit and detached her left arm.
Although her husband was able to pull her back onto the kayak to avoid the risk of drowning, he was unequipped to stop the loss of blood that comes with such a traumatic injury. Sadly, Nahid bled out before authorities could locate and rescue the couple.
3. A New Zealand Gnaw
Let’s leave the U.S. and travel south to another place that experiences frequent shark attacks. Clark Island in New Zealand is known for its clear kayak tours in the country’s first marine reserve, but things weren’t so clear for the subject of our next story.
In December of 2009, a 24-year-old Maurice Phillips and his friend headed out for a day of kayak fishing off Clark Island. Whether it was caused by turbulent ocean conditions or user error, both kayaks wound up capsizing and their paddlers were left to swim back to shore.
As Maurice swam, he was suddenly bit on the upper thigh by a great white shark. Officials would later estimate that the shark that attacked Maurice was between nine and ten feet long.
While Maurice tried to finish the swim back to shore, his injuries prohibited him from making it all the way. Although the official cause of death is listed as drowning, this remains one of the most famous kayak shark encounters on record.
4. Mayhem at Makena
We head back to Maui‘s warm and crystal clear tropical waters for our next famous shark encounter story. Like the last one, this also involves kayak anglers that got more than they hoped to catch.
The subject of our next story is Patrick Briney, a native of Washington state who was visiting Maui with friends in December of 2013. The group decided to try their luck kayak fishing the shores of Makena Landing on Maui’s southern shore.
Patrick was fishing about a half-mile offshore when things went awry. He was sitting in his sit-on-top fishing kayak with his feet dangling over the edges into the water (which, honestly, is a common thing that many of us do when we want to cool off without going for a full swim).
Suddenly, a shark showed up seemingly out of nowhere. The shark attacked Patrick and wound up biting off his entire right foot and most of his right calf as well.
Patrick’s friends were close by and they rushed to his aid. Despite the fact that they weren’t far from shore and were able to get assistance from medical professionals in a timely fashion, they were unable to stop Patrick’s blood loss in time to save his life.
A thorough investigation later suggested that the shark that attacked Patrick was a ten-foot Galapagos shark that locals continued to spot in the area for months after the attack.
5. A Most Unfortunate Reunion
Our final famous shark encounter story takes us to Reunion Island, which is located near Mauritius and Madagascar. This tiny island is technically controlled by the nation of France and it has a history of being a hot spot for shark attacks.
Our particular victim was visiting this tiny island in December of 2019 and decided to go for a solo kayak trip off the coast of La-Saline-Les-Bains. He never returned after dark and a search effort was unsuccessful.
Two weeks later, however, authorities caught a rather large and aggressive tiger shark that was estimated to be more than 11 feet long. With this mysterious disappearance of the kayaker still fresh in their minds, they decided to dissect the shark.
Inside, they found human limbs and, more surprisingly, a bracelet that family members later identified as belonging to this very unfortunate paddler.
Safety Tips For Avoiding Shark Attacks
Reducing the risk of shark attacks to absolute zero while paddling on the ocean is impossible. With these useful safety tips, however, you can seriously reduce the possibility and also increase your chances of survival if an attack does happen.
Read Local Shark Reports
Shark attacks are surprisingly well documented in almost all coastal communities. If you’re traveling somewhere to go ocean kayaking, there are most likely plenty of resources available to help you understand where sharks have recently been sighted.
Reading local shark reports can help you avoid areas that have been seeing a recent trend of shark activity. It can also give you tips on the times of the day and exact locations where sharks are being seen in your area.
For example, some places even close down beaches when sharks have been sighted in the area. If you’re about to launch your kayak on an empty beach with a sign that says closed, you might think twice about continuing your actions.
If you can’t find local shark reports online or in local publications, go to the nearest lifeguard stand or Coast Guard station you can find. They will have the most up-to-date information on where and when sharks have been sighted in your area.
Stay In Your Kayak
As you probably noticed from our famous shark encounter stories, some victims simply made the mistake of leaving their kayak. While we can’t assume anything about their specific scenarios, we feel comfortable saying that staying in your kayak is safer than going for a swim if you know sharks may be in your area.
Yes, that includes just hanging your feet over the side of your kayak or popping out for a quick dip. While we don’t want you to feel like there’s a shark around every corner (there are no corners in the ocean anyway), the safest thing you can do when ocean kayaking is to stay in your kayak.
That way, there’s always something between you and a shark if a particularly disgruntled one does decide to attack you. That first bite will be plastic instead of one of your limbs, and that can, in fact, make all the difference in the world.
Avoid Hunting Grounds
According to National Geographic, the vast majority of shark attacks occur within 100 feet of shore. These places are known as ‘littoral zones’ in the scientific community and they are popular fishing and hunting grounds for many marine species.
That includes seals, which, if you remember correctly, are kind of appetizing for many shark species. When seals are close to shore, the breaking waves make it harder for them to outmaneuver sharks.
This is particularly why sharks enter these areas seeking their food and it’s one of the primary reasons why surfers are more likely to be attacked by a shark than kayakers. As a kayaker, you have the benefit of being able to paddle out a little further to avoid these littoral zones.
Unless you have one of the best surf kayaks and you love riding waves, just paddle out past the shoreline locations where sharks are most likely to be hunting. Sure, you’ll need to traverse this zone every time you paddle if you wish to get out and through it.
This is an unavoidable reality of ocean kayaking, but you can also keep your eye out for (and avoid) churning water or places where you can clearly see frenzied fish or seal activity. This is usually a sign that something bigger is also in the water.
Always Carry A First Aid Kit
This next tip is really a good tip for all kayakers regardless of location and the specific risks of those locations. Packing a quality, waterproof first aid kit is essential for paddlers of all skill and experience levels.
As it pertains to shark attacks, you’ll be much better prepared to handle injuries that could result from one of these unfortunate encounters if one does occur. As you probably noticed from our stories above, several of the victims didn’t make it because they weren’t able to control blood loss after the attack.
They didn’t pass away immediately after the shark attack and, in theory at least, there was still an opportunity to save their lives if the proper skills and equipment were present. Having a fully stocked first aid kit addresses the equipment part of that equation.
Skills are another story, and it’s why we also think that most kayakers should take the time to go through basic first aid training (at the minimum). If you intend on taking longer, self-supported kayaking expeditions, then we’d highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Responder certification course from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
Always Wear A PFD
PFDs save lives! It really is as simple as that, but when you’re dealing with a potential shark attack, the last thing we want you worrying about is simply staying afloat.
You’ll also notice that the causes of death for a couple of our victims were actually drowning (instead of from the direct effects of the shark attack). Wearing your PFD is a fail-safe against any and all things that could go wrong while you’re paddling.
Although it might sound a little morbid, wearing a PFD will also help rescuers find and identify you much more quickly in a rescue (or recovery) situation. This can increase your odds of survival but also give your loved ones peace of mind more quickly in a worst-case scenario.
At the end of the day, the question is really whether or not you want to live your life or wait around until you think it’s safe to live your life with zero risks involved. In our experience, the latter situation may never come.
Seeing sharks from a distance or even having a close encounter is part of the territory for ocean kayakers. Fortunately, there are many inland lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers that you can paddle on if you want to avoid sharks altogether.
In fact, you might benefit from checking out some of our selections for kayaking in the Smoky Mountains! If you’re not in that area, this article on the 10 best places to kayak for beginners in the United States.
The purpose of this article was certainly not to scare anyone, so we hope you simply came away with a better understanding of the possibility of kayak shark attacks, how they occur, and what you can do to avoid them.
As always, we wish you nothing but the safest and most enjoyable of paddling experiences in the coming year (and for many years to come!).