“Words cannot describe how loud the impact was around my head while I was inside the boat’s v-berth…. The boat was full-on attacked 7 different times… usually at sunrise or sunset.”
– Keith Poe, shark tagger
This is a description of an attack on a boat by a huge shark that might stand the hair up on your arms. But is there more to the story?
Sharks have been known to attack people – usually surfers or kayakers who were mistaken for seals; or snorkelers and divers who got too close during a feeding frenzy.
But there are stories of boats being followed and attacked, sometimes even involving sharks jumping onto boats to get at the people on board.
How true are these stories, and if they’re exaggerated, what are the witnesses describing?
It turns out sharks commonly investigate boats as part of scavenging behavior. For a 15ft great white, of course, investigating might mean lifting it out of the water with a curious bump or nibbling gently on the motor. But these aren’t attacks; the shark just wants to know what it is.
Sailors are known for their tall tales. While the truth might be a little murky, sharks have been documented checking out small boats and rafts or even submarines.
But what are they trying to do? Let’s dive a little deeper into this.
Do sharks follow boats?
Sharks respond to various stimuli when hunting. Disturbances in the water may signal an injured animal – and easy pickings.
Splashing sends vibrations over long distances, and a hungry shark may come to investigate.
Rowing boats can be small and splashy enough for a shark to consider checking out.
Sharks may also be familiar with fishing vessels and the cascade of dead and dying fish caught and falling out of nets around them. This can mean sharks learn to follow boats because they associate them with food.
Stranded sailors or crew of damaged ships and boats have told stories of sharks circling their rafts for days as if they are trying to figure out how to reach the people onboard. With any story like this, it’s often a combination of truth and exaggeration, but sharks are known to be very curious.
Sharks will approach items like boats or rafts floating in the sea. They may even follow them for a while, but without any sign of food, they will soon lose interest.
Stories of sharks following boats for days may involve more than one shark or the same shark being intermittently curious.
It’s unlikely that a shark will stalk a boat for days on end.
They may, however, rush and bump into boats and use their enormous mouths to investigate them.
Do sharks attack boats?
While most sharks are too small to hunt whales, they will scavenge on a carcass if given the opportunity. This is an important point to mention because it suggests that they won’t attempt to directly attack prey over a certain size.
However, there are some elements to their scavenging behavior that is worth considering.
First of all, a shark has no fingers; its only way to investigate something is to use its mouth. This tactile approach involves prodding and bumping or biting at something to see what it’s made of and how it works.
Unfortunately, when that thing is a person, a shark’s innocent intention is irrelevant. And when it’s a boat, it can feel like you’re under attack.
When approaching a whale carcass, a big shark like a great white will nibble or bump at the tail end.
If this carcass happens to be a boat, this can manifest in the shark appearing to try and gobble up the motor.
‘Bumping’ is more of a feeling-out process. Nudging with the snout or having a little exploratory nibble is the shark’s way of feeling its environment and checking if something tastes good. Sharks don’t really attack boats, but it may feel that way when a 2-ton white shark is feeling you out.
The bumping of boats by sharks can be terrifying and is relatively common. But this is more of a way for the shark to get a feel for what it is and see if it’s worth eating than a direct attack.
Sharks never really go into attack mode with boats.
When a great white attacks a seal or other large prey item on the surface, it often rushes from beneath, connecting with such force that the shark breaches, sometimes entirely out of the water.
While this full-on attack has been reported by surfers, there’s no such record of it happening to a boat.
Can a shark jump on a boat?
Many sharks can jump out of the water. But their reasons for doing so are limited. They’re usually either feeding or caught on a line and as far as we know, it’s never in an attempt to get onto a boat.
Great whites are the most iconic of the ‘jumping sharks’, but mako and thresher sharks are much more likely to breach.
These are fast animals whose momentum often will carry them out of the water. But something has to inspire them to do it, and they’re not in the habit of lunging wildly at sailors.
So far, there’s no evidence to suggest that sharks sink boats.
Contrary to popular belief, fish – including sharks – do feel pain. Being pulled from your home by a hook in your face would probably cause you to jump about a bit too.
Sharks are curious, athletic, and tactile. This combination of things does occasionally lead to them nibbling or bumping into a boat, or even landing in one in an attempt to get away from a fisherman’s hook or chase a smaller prey item.
But they don’t really attack boats.
Extant shark species are simply too small to consider preying on something the size of a boat unless it’s already dead.
They’re merely exploring the possibility that it might be a juicy whale carcass.
Most times, if you leave sharks alone, they’ll leave you alone right back. Most times…