Why Do Sharks Attack Surfers?

Why do sharks attack surfers?

The main reason sharks attack surfers is because of a case of mistaken identity and the sharks’ natural sense of exploratory and curious nature.

Assuming that we didn’t know why sharks attack people, we can at least rule out that it’s due to food.

Most sharks consume about 0.5% to 3% of their body weight every meal, meaning that sharks such as great whites, which can weigh up to five thousand pounds and are responsible for the most attacks on humans, would need to consume at least a few hundred pounds of food per meal to sustain themselves.

I don’t know about you, but for me, consuming a few hundred pounds would almost certainly mean having to eat an entire person instead of just biting a leg or arm, which is the case for almost all shark attacks. That doesn’t look like a predator chasing prey to me.

To further prove the point that sharks attack us due to mistaken identity and not by their predatory instincts, let’s see how often surfers get attacked by sharks, as well as what you should do if you do happen to see a shark in the ocean.

Let’s take a deeper dive into this now (pun intended).

How Often Do Surfers Get Attacked by Sharks?

Overall, it is not often that surfers will become victims of shark attacks; however, the likelihood is higher than that of the general population.

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), there were 137 alleged shark attacks, of which 112 were confirmed around the world in 2021.

Of these attacks, over half (51%) were attributed to surfers alone, meaning that there were around 55 or 56 shark attacks on surfers worldwide in 2021.

These numbers make sense when you realize that surfers almost always stay within the surf zone, which also happens to be commonly visited by sharks.

Add to this the fact that surfboards look a bit like seals from the bottom and that surfing or paddling on the surfboard can generate a lot of noise (sharks can easily be attracted by noise or vibrations in the water), and you’ll probably start to understand why surfers get attacked the most.

How Likely are People, in general, to be Attacked by Sharks?

Although sharks are undoubtedly the apex predators of the sea, when it comes to humans, sharks never use food as a reason to attack us.

That’s why the overall instances of shark attacks are so low and have been consistently faltering over the past few decades.

In fact, throughout a span of 50 years, the average number of unprovoked shark attacks per year was less than half the number of fatalities caused by lightning strikes. The average number of fatalities per year caused by shark attacks was even less, at only 26 compared to 1970 caused by lightning strikes (fig. 1).

Lightning Strike Fatalities Annual Avg.Shark Bites Annual Avg.Shark Attack Fatalities Annual Avg.
Figure 1: The number of fatalities due to lightning strikes per year, compared to the number of shark bites and fatalities due to shark attacks. (https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/odds/compare-risk/lightning-strikes/)

Knowing that sharks are apex predators yet to see these numbers, I think both prove that sharks do not view us as food (if we were specifically and intentionally targeted, the numbers would probably be quite higher) and show just how unlikely one is to be attacked by them.

What to Do if You See a Shark While Swimming?

If you see a shark while swimming, avoid it and get as far away from it as possible!

I realize you’ve probably heard this before, but I cannot stress the main point enough. If you see a shark in the water with you, stay away from it and head to land as quickly as possible.

Easier said than done? Well, let’s take a look at what you should do exactly depending on the situation.

Getting Out of the Water Quickly Is Key

If you see a shark in the water with you, do not do anything else other than get away and reach for land. Do not try to take a photo, or even worse, try to willingly approach and touch it.

Stay Calm when Encountering a Shark

Although it is necessary to swim to shore as quickly as possible, do it calmly, smoothly, and try not to panic. Sharks can sense electromagnetic signals (meaning they can sense things such as fear and excitement) and frantic splashing, both of which can rile them up.

Keep Eye Contact with the Shark

It’s important to keep eye contact with the shark as you’re swimming away towards land. Although not always easy, maintaining eye contact with the shark will most likely show the shark that you are aware of them, thus reducing their aggression.


Overall, although shark attacks are extremely rare (there were more injuries caused by toilets (43,000) in 1996 than sharks (13), you read that right) either for surfers or the general public, it’s crucial that you remember to always be on your guard when swimming or especially surfing. 

Humans are not their natural prey; however, if you even think you happen to see one nearby, forget everything else, stay calm, keep eye contact, and get to shore.