The Actual Truth about White Shark Bites

3rd December 2015 | by

This blog started as a SharkStuff Facebook post but I quickly realised that, to do it justice, it would better written in blog format.

The Actual Truth about White Shark Bites

I decided to write in non-standard scientific citation and instead, throughout the post, I have included links to relevant pages, articles and information so that they are more easily available to those interested. Here we go.

A sad fact about working on white sharks is that the thing that gets brought up most often in association with them is bites. When I see articles on shark bites on social media, I’ll read them and provide links to various pieces of information in an effort to correct inaccuracies, dispel myths and help people to educate themselves about sharks. I’ve lost count of the number of horrendous shark bite articles I have seen, riddled with misinformation, biased personal opinion, unfounded propaganda and sensationalist rubbish. Perhaps the more dangerous are those that are well written and come across as informed, considered and correct, insidiously misleading the readers and harming the public opinion of sharks – an act shown to negatively affect conservation efforts:

  • Neff and Heuter (2013) Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions
  • Simpfendorfer et al (2011) The importance of research and public opinion to conservation management of sharks and rays: a synthesis
  • Neff and Yang (2013) Shark bites and public attitudes: Policy implications from the first before and after shark bite survey
  • Neff (2012) Australian Beach Safety and the Politics of Shark Attack
  • Crossley et al (2014) Public Perception and Understanding of Shark Attack Mitigation Measures in Australia

This post was inspired after reading yet another article about shark bites, “Be alert, be afraid: the truth about shark attacks” written by Frank Robson for the Sydney Morning Herald Parts of this article are outright incorrect while other parts raise some very interesting points. Responses are pertinent to white sharks and this is by no means a thorough review of the relevant literature.

Corrections to major glaring errors:

1) “There’s no way to know if they really are a vulnerable species…”

White sharks can, and have, been classed as vulnerable, according to the criteria set out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – the body responsible for the Red List of Endangered Species

  • White shark numbers have been shown to have undergone a significant decline in New South Wales, Australia Reid et al (2011) Decadal trends in shark catches and effort from the New South Wales, Australia, Shark Meshing Program
  • Current white shark numbers are being estimated for the two Australian white shark populations

2) “Apex predators such as tiger sharks and great whites are opportunistic hunters with little to fear in their own environment, and it’s nonsense to suggest their attacks on humans are “mistakes” or “curiosity” or “boisterousness”.”

If white sharks bites were feeding motivated, the number of fatalities would be FAR higher than they are (over 60% of white shark bites are non-fatal The majority of white shark bites, particularly on surfers, are the result of investigation.

3) “They don’t automatically attack us, because they’re not always hungry or so inclined but, for reasons yet to be understood, they are attacking more often”

Shark bite incidents have shown a steady decadal increase over the last century, likely due to increases in human population size, a massive increase in the number of human water users and a greater propensity to report incidents – not because sharks feel more like biting people lately. White shark bites in Australia are not in a state of rapid increase.

  • West (2011) Changing patterns of shark attacks in Australian waters
  • Kock and Johnson (2006) White Shark abundance: not a causative factor in numbers of shark bite incidents
  • Accessed online 01/12/2015 Australian Shark Attack File Annual Report Summary for 2014
  • Accessed online 01/12/2015 International Shark Attack File 2014 report
  • To put things in perspective, shark bites constitute only 2.4% of marine animal related injuries presented to emergency departments in Victoria, Australia Taylor et al (2002) An Analysis of Marine Animal Injuries Presenting to Emergency Departments in Victoria, Australia

4) “One of those I spoke with was Jeff Wright, whose son Jevan, 17, was consumed within seconds by a massive great white while surfing with friends.”

This is a case of simple misreporting of the truth and exaggeration. If you read the report of this incident, there is nothing about Jevan being “consumed within seconds”. To me, this feels pretty insensitive and in poor form.

What is interesting though is the quote from Jevan’s father; “Every time there’s a death,” said Wright, “so-called experts say things like, ‘It’s sad, but he or she knew the risks of entering the magnificent endangered sharks’ domain.’ “But people don’t know the risks, because the same bunch who got white pointers protected have told us for decades that we have more chance of dying from bee stings or falling coconuts … It’s absolute bulls**t!”

I think he has a point.

It’s important for water users to know the wildlife-related risks associated with their specific activities in their specific areas. While the odds of any one person globally being bitten by a shark are almost infinitesimally low, the situation is changed dramatically when that person regularly surfs in an area frequented by white sharks, even more so if they are in the presence of natural prey (as Jared was), alone, in murky water, near a drop off or gully or in low light conditions. In my opinion, it would be downright insensitive to quote the bee sting/coconut statistics to someone that has just lost a loved one due to a shark bite. I strongly believe that compassion should always be the first response when incidents like these occur. This is a man telling us that neither he nor his son knew the risks, and that is something that should be addressed, amongst the surf community in particular.

So, while the likelihood of being bitten by a shark under the above conditions is still comparatively very low (there are MANY more non-harmful encounters with white sharks than there are harmful, they just get substantially less media attention), I feel that it would be more helpful to educate people on how to best avoid a shark bite, how to best handle a shark encounter and how to assist someone if they are bitten. Taking positive action to reassure and help water users help themselves and each other will achieve much more than repeated and often inflammatory recitation of statistics after an incident. Appropriately worded (i.e. no need for inflammatory statements as suggested in the article by Mr Robson) billboards on beaches, clearly communicating risks and how to avoid them, are a good idea.

Excellent advice for water users can be found here:

And a brilliant example of an appropriate white shark/water user plan of action being put together in Mossel Bay, South Africa here:

First aid training would be of significant benefit to communities and individuals in areas frequented by white sharks, particularly as a lack of sufficient first aid at the scene has been found to be a major contributing factor towards fatality:

  • Rtshiladze et al (2011) The 2009 Sydney shark attacks: case series and literature review (*Graphic content in the full text*).

Briefly touching on the complex issue of shark culling: culling of sharks has been shown time and time again to be ineffective in mitigating shark bites, here’s a good, recent on why shark culling isn’t a good idea and what the alternatives to a cull are:

I’m a surfer and a white shark scientist who has surfed at Muizenberg, South Africa, a white shark hotspot. I chose to surf at a beach that has dedicated lookouts for sharks, a flag warning system and regular shark updates ( When I noticed that my partner and I had moved to a deserted spot, I chose to re-join the busier area, sacrificing my wave count for caution. I’m not going to lie, when a large piece of kelp bumped into my leg, I jumped.

If I get a “sharky feeling” when I’m out surfing, I paddle in, and I quickly stopped surfing at dusk in the Seychelles after two fatal incidents occurred involving bull sharks. I have NEVER urinated in any of my surfing wetsuits (trust me, this is no mean feat) and would not surf alone, after heavy rain, in murky water near a river mouth (especially after heavy rain) or if bait-fish or other well known shark prey items were in abundance.

It is no good preaching to people that white sharks are like puppies, that they are cuddly and benign. They are not. They are large predators who need to be properly understood and respected. I have great admiration and even affection for the white sharks that I have personally studied, but I do not advocate trying to touch free-swimming wild sharks and strongly believe that it is not helpful to the sharks to misrepresent them as harmless. Doing so will not only cause the majority of people that you are trying to educate to instantly write off all of your opinions on sharks, it may also cause them to back further into a negative opinion of sharks and those who wish to protect them. Be informed, compassionate and rational and helpful.





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