Worst Beaches for Shark Attacks
If the ocean is a shark’s vast marine buffet, then humans are the brussels sprouts—we’re far from the favorite. But that’s no consolation to a swimmer like Kori Robertson, who was attacked in early 2011 while wading in the ocean off the coast of Texas. A 12-foot shark took a bite of her thigh then quickly spat her out.
Sharing the world’s waterways with sharks means that occasionally we bump into one another—and the encounter doesn’t always end well for us humans. But don’t let that keep you from the water: shark attacks are very rare. Still, some beaches—for various reasons—attract more sharks than others.
To get some perspective and uncover the worst beaches for shark attacks, we culled data from news reports, the International Shark Attack File, and the Global Shark Attack File. Globally, there have been 447 fatal shark attacks and 2,320 nonfatal incidents since 1845. The number of reported shark attacks increased worldwide in 2010, with 79 attacks, up 25 percent from 61 the prior year, according to the International Shark Attack File. That said, in the U.S., the last decade has seen 230 deaths from dog bites and only eight from sharks.
“For an animal so large, sharks are remarkably cautious,” says Ralph S. Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee and author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century. “They use all their keen senses to determine if something is food. The last thing they do is put it in their mouth. When they realize it’s of no interest they release it,” he says.
The three most likely sharks to attack a human are bull sharks, great white sharks, and tiger sharks. Different species have different personalities, and getting inside their brains is the first step in knowing which beaches should be avoided.
“Great white sharks spend most of their time in the open ocean,” explains Marie Levine, executive director of the Shark Research Institute and archivist for the Global Shark Attack File. Bull sharks love brackish river deltas and have been found as far as 60 miles inland, while tiger sharks are doggedly curious. They feed on carrion, turtles, and garbage, and are therefore most likely to give us an exploratory bite.
Two rules of thumb: never swim alone and, if you’re actually attacked, take aim with repeated hard blows to the eyes or gills, not the nose.
It’s no coincidence that the most dangerous beaches are the ones where tourists and locals flock to swim, surf, and snorkel; more people equals more potential for attacks. Some beaches, however, are particularly infested.
New Smyrna Beach, Florida
With 238 to date, New Smyrna Beach consistently sees more shark attacks annually than any other beach on the planet. (In 2008 it recorded more than a dozen incidents, according to the Global Shark Attack File.) The beach is part of Volusia County, which accounts for roughly 37 percent of Florida’s attacks. New Smyrna Beach has never yet had a fatality; most attacks amount to minor nibbles by young bull sharks, some no bigger than river trout. Still, it pays to have every bite treated by a doctor. “Bull sharks eat carrion so those cuts can easily become infected,” cautions Ralph S. Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee.
New South Wales, Australia
Encounters with great white sharks have been recorded along popular beaches from Bondi Beach to Byron Bay, with 55 fatalities and 171 unprovoked attacks. The problem may lie in the proximity of the continental shelf. “Very deep water close to shore compresses the habitat of coastal sharks and allows pelagic species like the great white shark to come close to shore,” says Marie Levine of the Shark Research Institute. Lisa Mondy recently had her arm bitten to the bone by a great white shark after falling from her wakeboard near Port Stephens—the same spot where surfer Ben Morcom was mauled in 2007.
Second Beach, Port St. Johns, South Africa
Cage diving with great white sharks draws tourists to South Africa like sharks to a bloody carcass—which is exactly what many tour operators use to guarantee sightings. Chumming the water with blood teaches sharks to associate humans with food and, according to Surfers Against Shark Cage Diving, the number of fatal attacks in South Africa has skyrocketed since the introduction of cage diving in 1992. There have been 23 fatalities since 1990, more than during the entire previous century. The style of attacks supports their case: white sharks are hunting at surf beaches.
Fletcher Cove, Solana Beach, CA
With 142 unprovoked attacks since 1900, California ranks second in the U.S. for shark attack frequency. The long coastline and perfect weather clearly play a part, but there’s more to it. “Mother Nature has implanted in the sharks that southern California is where they must give birth to ensure the highest rate of survival,” says Ralph S. Collier of the Shark Research Committee. Millions of small fish called grunions spawn along the shore from Point Conception to Baja California, providing the perfect feeding ground for great white sharks. In 2008 Dr. David Martin was fatally mauled at Fletcher Cove. He was in the middle of a pack of swimmers training for a triathlon. “What sharks are attracted to is the splashing,” explains Collier. “It resembles an animal in trouble.”
Maui has racked up a comparatively low total of 37 attacks and three fatalities, yet it’s the nature of the encounters that can be scary. “In Hawaii, tiger sharks present a danger because they tend to feed on turtles near the surface, which, of course, is where we like to swim and surf,” says Marie Levine of the Shark Research Institute. Case in point: Dan Lankheit was kayaking off Makeena Beach in 2006 when an 18-foot-long shark repeatedly bumped his kayak for a full 15 minutes.
Eighteen fatal attacks on surfers since 1992 made this section of Brazilian beach so notorious that surfing was banned along 37 miles of coastline. The rise in numbers appears to have coincided with a large harbor development in nearby Boca de Suape; overdevelopment and overfishing depleted the shark’s natural food sources. The most recent fatal attack, in 2006, occurred shortly after the surfing ban was lifted.
Sharm El Sheik, Egypt
In November 2010, the holiday resort area of Sharm El Sheik saw an unprecedented five snorkelers viciously attacked in six days—the last one fatal. Ralph S. Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee, was flown out to investigate. What he discovered was bites to the hand and the rear end, an extremely unusual place for sharks to attack. Then video footage surfaced of a scuba diving instructor hand-feeding sharks from a fanny pack. “The diver was inadvertently teaching the sharks to associate humans with food and, what’s more, teaching them that the mother lode of fish was in a pouch on their rear,” Collier says.
Surf Beach, Vandenberg, CA
By the time great white sharks grow to around 10 feet in length, they start to feed on marine mammals and migrate up the coast toward Santa Barbara and beyond, where sea lions number in the hundreds of thousands. Any beach that is a common haul-out zone for seals is guaranteed to have a healthy population of sharks. “The seals feed on the fish which hang around the river mouths while adapting themselves to the fresh water and waiting for Mother Nature’s signal to head upstream,” says Ralph S. Collier of the Shark Research Committee.
Garden Island, Western Australia
While Western Australia ranks third in the country for attacks (41 attacks and 10 fatalities), the concentration of attacks around Garden Island, a few hours’ drive south of Perth, proves highly unusual. In 2008, Cowaramup Bay became the focus of attention when a swimmer was taken less than a kilometer from where another man had been killed a few years earlier. Then, while leading a swim-with-dolphins snorkeling tour in 2010, Elyse Frankcom was bitten by a great white shark in Port Kennedy not far from where a crab diver was also taken. The attack while swimming with dolphins helps dispel a common myth: “There is no truth to the notion that there are no sharks where there are dolphins,” says Ralph S. Collier of the Shark Research Committee.
Ponce de Leon Inlet, Florida
Florida deserves two entries because 59 percent of all shark attacks in the U.S. occur there. Ponce de Leon is a lagoon at the mouth of the Halifax and Indian rivers on the mid-Atlantic coast. Surfers and spinner sharks congregate at the river mouth waiting for a choice wave or tasty morsel to come their way. In 2008, there were 23 attacks, breaking the previous record of 21, but none so far has been fatal.