How Sea Kayakers Should Deal With Sharks

by Eric Soares on October 27, 2010

A three-foot dorsal fin headed straight for Jim Kakuk and me as we paddled from Point Tomales toward Point Reyes.  My mind was electrified as I sat there with mouth agape as the sea monster sped toward us.  It would be upon us in one second.  What to do?  Then the 20-foot predator rushed between our boats and peered up at me with a big blue eye.  It was not Jaws.  It was some kind of mutant dolphin. It continued on and disappeared; we sighed with relief.

It was not a white shark out to get us, but it could have been.  We were treading on a white shark breeding ground and had every right to be nervous.  A year before an eight-foot white shark circled my boat as I sat eating lunch near Punta Gorda on the Lost Coast.  I stopped eating and paddled five miles to safety, thinking I might be somebody’s sandwich.  Nothing happened, but still, I speculated.

Just last week a dude was killed by a giant white shark (the paper reported that it was 20-feet long and weighed up to two tons) at Surf Beach on Vandenburg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara.  Concurrently, a “monster white shark” was spotted at a beach in Australia.  Even though it’s true that your chances of being munched by a shark are slim, it still gives me the willies.  I respect great whites, tiger and bull sharks, hammerheads—all sharks. But I’m not keen on encountering one while I’m in the water.  How about you?

A hammerhead shark I spotted in the shallows on the west side of Oahu in 2009

I have never thought it would be “cool” to interact with a big shark from the safety of my boat, unless my boat was a ship.  Once, when on the deck of a Navy warship anchored off the island of Tinian, I remember spying a 16-foot tiger shark prowling in a lagoon I had been swimming in alone over the past week.  That ended my daily swims.  Another time I was in the Philippines and a blue shark was swimming about with me.  I was snorkeling and quickly but smoothly swam into shore and got out.

I’ve always hated those documentary films which show divers feeding great whites from boats and shark cages.  They remind me of the guy who hung out with grizzlies, right up until he got eaten.  It’s not smart to perceive big sharks as friendly to humans.  Big sharks are not misunderstood nice guys who had a bad upbringing—they are top predators.  Only the orca is higher on the food chain (yes, they also scare me).

Our encounter with the blue-eyed ultradolphin got Jim and me thinking, what would we do should we be attacked by a 20-foot great white—or any big ocean creature, such as a Stellar sea lion or elephant seal (which we had already had scary experiences with)?  We Tsunami Rangers spend a lot of time envisioning various maritime scenarios and planning how we will deal with them. Then, when a rehearsed scenario occurs, we do better.  Here’s what we came up with regarding how to deal with sharks:

  1. Avoid paddling in known shark attack areas.  For example, we do not paddle at Ano Nuevo (near Santa Cruz, California) since kayaker Ken Kelton’s great white attack experience (he lived, but his boat didn’t).  Similarly, I would not paddle along the part of Australia which houses marine crocodiles as Dave Winkworth did.  Why look for trouble?
  2. If you do paddle in known shark-infested waters (e.g., the South African coast), be aware that sharks may attack, because they are either stupid, mad, or hungry, so plan for it (see below).  If you can still comfortably paddle, knowing the situation, you will not be caught wholly off guard should a sea monster rear its head.  That’s half the battle.
  3. If you are paddling in shark waters and are bleeding, get off the water.  Sharks can smell a drop of blood from a long way off and be on scene quickly and quietly.
  4. If a shark appears or attacks your boat, paddle smoothly and quickly to shore as you alert your friends of the danger (yelling is okay, but sound in command, as you would to a dog, and not in a panic).
  5. If your friends are nearby, paddle together in a pod smoothly and quickly to shore.  Everyone needs to be focused and determined, not panicky.
  6. If the shark attacks your body, fight back with everything you’ve got.  Yes, you are in deep trouble, but you have a slim chance if you muster up everything you have and defend yourself.  Poke its eyes and hit its nose.  After the attack, no matter how badly you may be wounded, swim smoothly and quickly to shore.  If the shark attacks again, fight back again, then continue to swim to shore.  You may die anyway, but at least you have a chance if you keep your mind centered on survival instead of terror.  You can worry about fright and post-traumatic stress from your hospital bed.
  7. If you are in a group, and you see a kayaker get attacked by a shark, paddle aggressively to the shark and ram him if you can (yes, you read correctly), then you and your group should assist the attacked person to the shore, smoothly and quickly. (see #5, above)
  8. Once ashore, call 911 and administer first aid to yourself and anyone attacked by a shark.

Remember, many people survive shark attacks.  You can too.  So contemplate the eight steps that Jim and I came up with, and see how it meshes with your ideas as to what to do should you get attacked.

One last story:  A few years ago, Debrah Volturno and I were teaching an Open Coast class in Moss Beach on the northern California coast.  Deb paddled up to me and said a 10-foot great white was spy hopping and eye-balling us.  What do you think we did?  Yes, we rounded up the class and smoothly and quickly paddled to shore.  After we landed, we told them about the shark. Since they had not seen it, we decided not to frighten them by spilling the beans while they were on the water.  The moral of the story:  when your kayaking instructor tells you to do something smoothly and quickly, do it; don’t dawdle.

Comments?  Questions?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

PeterD October 27, 2010 at 1:33 pm

“Avoid padding in known shark attack areas” will be starting to cause the number places we can paddle to dwindle. There were 2 incidents on open water between Channel Islands and mainland this year – so does that mean open water crossing to the islands should be out?

And don’t forget – not all sharks are dangerous. For example, it is perfectly safe to be in the water with leopard sharks.

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Eric Soares October 27, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Around San Francisco, aka the “Red Triangle”, there are white sharks galore. I don’t have a good answer to your question of should open water crossings to the Channel Islands be out. My short answer is “Go to the islands!” and don’t worry about it, because sharks are everywhere. However, if there has been a recent shark attack (e.g., the Surf Beach attack at Vandenburg) or frequent attacks in an area, that should be a red flag.

You are so right that there are many shark species which don’t attack humans. I have waded and snorkled in the water at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach while surrounded by dozens of 3-foot leopard sharks, and I felt perfectly safe as I marveled at their beauty. But…, if those were blue sharks, I would have left the water pronto. That’s just me being a scaredy cat.

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John Soares October 28, 2010 at 9:58 am

Eric, this is an excellent and thought-provoking article.

I’m jealous of that hammerhead photo. I lived on Kauai from 1996 to 1999 and spent a lot of time snorkeling, swimming, and body surfing. I never saw a single shark, although when I was snorkeling I was always hoping to see a reef shark.

Well, I guess if I couldn’t see the sharks, the sharks had no idea I was around either. Hmmm, wait…

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Eric Soares October 28, 2010 at 10:11 am

John,

I remember that time you took Nancy and me on that mile-long snorkel swim from Hanalei in Kauai. The entire time I was thinking about tiger sharks–not that any bothered us. I would not have wanted to see one–or a reef shark for that matter!

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Nancy Soares October 28, 2010 at 5:13 pm

The only shark I have ever seen in real life was that hammerhead. However, while on the Big Island, there was a group of tiger sharks cruising the local beach near where we were staying. We swam anyway. But there were other people in the water too and we decided to take the risk. Not long ago, I was running on the trail near our house and I ran into 3 bears. I turned around and walked smoothly and quickly away. No problem. Predators of all kinds (human, too) exist. My thought is: Don’t be afraid, don’t be in denial, do be prepared. Have a plan, just in case. I know bears are around – I see their scat all the time. But I knew what I would do if I saw one (or 3) and I did it. I was okay. Also, I have fallen out of my kayak times without number near Pillar Point, home of Harvey, the Man in the Gray Suit, and every time I thought about sharks and got back in my boat as smoothly and quickly as I could. I still run the trail; I will still kayak Pillar Point. I would not try to go through or even around the bears, and I would not go back that way within a couple of hours of sighting them. I would get out of the water if I saw a shark. But nothing and no one is going to stop me from enjoying my life and taking well-considered risks.

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Eric Soares October 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Hear, hear! I agree with you 100%. Well said.

And, speaking of bears, I saw one on our property in Ashland, Oregon 2 days ago. it was just loping along (very fast), and minding its own business.

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Padre jack October 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm

“…just keep treading water,” Fr. Dave Daze, S.J. to Fr. Jack Duggan, S.J.

“Garcia said he was two feet from Ransom when the shark rose out of the water without warning and bit into Ransom’s leg.”–re the October 22 Surf Beach attack.

Although I have never been attacked by a white shark—or a grizzley, or anything else worth talking about (I was charged by a rhino and an elephant, but I was in a vehicle)—it is my understanding that if a shark shows itself, you have less to worry about. From what I have read or heard, killer shark attacks come from below, unseen, not from the surface.

Let me relate a true story, told to me by one of the participants, and later confirmed by the other.

Back in the 1960s two Jesuit priests, Dave Daze and Jack Duggan were swimming a half mile or so off Venice Beach. Daze (pronounced Da-zae), in his fifties at the time was a very strong swimmer and loved swimming way out into the ocean. Duggan, in his thirties was a very good swimmer, but not as strong or as experienced.
A large white shark surfaced and began circling them. They estimated its length at 15-18 feet. Duggan was concerned, and asked if they should head for shore. Daze, calm as a proverbial cucumber, said, “No, just keep treading water slowly. don’t move. Don’t do anything. He’ll go away.”
After about 5-10 minutes the shark disappeared, and they swam slowly back to shore. They continued to swim in these waters regularly for years after, and never saw their interloper again.

I have been frightened by dolphins and sea lions when swimming; and have always hoped I would not have to face a shark. Like you I always think about it when I am in the ocean, and think about what I would do… But I have kayaked at Ano Nuevo (once with Mike and Dennis), and would not hesitate to do it again if I felt comfortable in my boat and in the water conditions. For me, there is a far greater probability of injury or death from an ordinary kayaking/swimming accident than from meeting a monster—so I do not worry so much about the monsters. I worry about boat comfort and water comfort.

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Rick March 30, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Just a quick note. Many individuals have seen sharks (particularly in murky water) before being attacked. Sharks, like other predators, like to investigate first and do a fair job of avoiding being observed, but this does not mean you are safe if you see one. Note that the animal is there for a reason, be it territory or snack, and you don’t want to be around when one takes samples.

Rick

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Eric Soares October 29, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Thank you for such a thought-provoking comment. “Just keep treading water.” My new mantra!

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John Lull October 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

For many years, while kayaking in the ‘red triangle’ (more on the triangle, below), I never worried in the least about sharks. I always figured the odds were way against being attacked, especially in a sea kayak. So why waste time and energy worrying about it? And, as Jack suggested above, there are many other, far greater risks to a sea kayaker than shark attack. In fact, when I taught kayaking and the inevitable question about sharks came up, that would be my response. There are far more important safety issues to consider. I still feel that way. However…

A few years ago, while paddling back after kayak fishing in unusually calm seas in the ocean off of Pillar Point (near Half Moon Bay) with my friend Joe Niec, I spotted a huge, and I mean HUGE, fin cutting through the water about 20 feet away. The fin was at least head high to me while sitting in a kayak, meaning at least 2 to 3 feet high. That fin sliced through the water just like in a movie and we could see a dark shape just below it that looked as big as an aircraft carrier. Then it submerged. I asked Joe: ‘what was that?’ His reply: ‘let’s get the hell out of here.’ So we kept on paddling. I later saw some footage of Great White Sharks on TV and realized for sure I had spotted a real GWS. I should also mention this sighting was right in the area where we surf kayaks on a regular basis.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later Debrah Volturno and I were surfing at Pillar Point and she spotted a large fin right behind me as I was waiting for a wave! I saw her eyes go wide and her face turn white. So we took the next wave in and quit for the day.

After those two experiences, I was slightly less inclined to think a shark attack was not worth considering. However, I do think that being in the water swimming or lying on a surf board, you are far more at risk than in a kayak. If the shark bites a kayak and ends up with a mouth full of fiberglass, I think he or she will let go and not pursue the meal, leaving you with a leaking boat but limbs intact. Also, surfing aside, if you are moving along at 3 knots in a sea kayak, you probably don’t look like an injured seal. At least this is what I keep telling myself.

Oh yeah, on the ‘red triangle,’ it turns out this triangle encompasses an area where the shore population is rather large (SF Bay Area), and it’s also an area where surfing is extremely popular. So of course there will be more shark attacks than in a less populated area. Just an observation.

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Sean Morley November 5, 2010 at 8:12 am

I thought you might be interested in a blue (?) shark encounter I had between Santa Barbara Island and Catalina:

I was listening to my iPod to relieve the boredom of yet another long crossing when suddenly I felt as much as heard a big splash behind me. I assumed it was just another dolphin or sea lion but when I glanced over my shoulder I saw not just a dorsal fin but a tail fin as well. And it was going from side to side. A shark! And a big one! It must have come right out of the water for me to have felt its splash and now it was right behind me, bumping the stern of my kayak. What should I do? My GPS told me I was 8.2 nautical miles from Catalina. There were no other vessels in sight. Great! I don’t mind admitting I was terrified. There must be something in a sea kayaker’s DNA that produces an overwhelming urge to paddle flat out when pursued by a shark. I resisted the urge to sprint, knowing that it would be futile and wanting to save my energy for a possible fight. The situation was quite bizarre. I distinctly remember Dire Straits’, “The Sultan of Swing” playing in my earphones as the shark chased me. The shark swam right underneath me, it’s dorsal fin close enough for me to hit with my paddle. As I did so it flicked the underside of my kayak with it’s tail, forcing me to low brace. I kept paddling and the shark circled and came right at me head on. I lunged at it again with my paddle but missed. As far as I am aware the shark never tried to bite the kayak or me for that matter but instead seemed intent on harassing me, like a cat with a mouse. Again it was on my stern. I reverse paddled and the shark came by me, again flicking the boat with it’s tail as I hits it’s fin. I was using a wing paddle which are not great for low bracing but I was determined not to capsize. The shark circled around and gave me the opportunity to get a really good look at it because the water was crystal clear. It was about ten to twelve foot in length, certainly not as long as my kayak. But it was just as sleek and really fast. I am fairly certain it was a blue shark. It had a torpedo-like head and long slender tail and whilst I have only seen a small great white in an aquarium, this shark seemed more slender, more graceful. It was a beautiful fish and had I been in a decent sized boat, the encounter would have been wonderful. In these circumstances however, I felt completely vulnerable, truly scared and more than a little bit stupid. Why should I be suprised to see a shark? This was their domain. I was the intruder. I had probably paddled past dozens without knowing it but now I had met one that was hungry.

The encounter lasted for about five minutes. What was really scary was how persistent the shark was. It must have known that I was not part of it’s normal diet. Yet it seemed intent on giving me a bad time. I had plenty of opportunity to take a picture of it as it cruised around me and chased my stern but I had absolutely no desire to take my hands off my paddle. I had a knife in my pocket but again was unwilling to let go of what I conisdered to be my best defence – a carbon wing paddle. I became exasperated. The thing just kept following me. What should I do? My VHF radio was in reach behind me but I felt a bit ridiculous shouting “MayDay” when the shark hadn’t actually bitten me. In the end I summoned up the courage to take my hand off the paddle to reach into the pocket of my life jacket where I knew I had some energy bar wrappers. I threw these into the water in the hope of distracting the fish. Then I found a half eaten Power Bar that I had forgotten about. I threw that in as well. May be the shark went for it and realized that I didn’t taste good after all? Who knows, but finally after what seemed like a very long time, the shark disappeared.

I am fairly sure it was a Blue Shark, or possibly a Mako. I am fairly sure it wasn’t a Great White and the approach from the rear seems to confirm that.
Scary all the same. Deb Volturno has since told me of similar Blue Shark encounters she’s had in Monterey Bay.

Cheers
Sean

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Eric Soares October 30, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Thanks for sharing your exciting encounters at Pillar Point, John, where all of us have surfed for years and the Mavericks Surf Contest is held (in the next couple of months). A couple of years ago a shark bit off a surf board at Pillar Point.

Sharks are less risky than hitting a rock or drowning, but are on the list of things to contemplate late at night.

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Eric Soares November 5, 2010 at 10:16 am

Sean,

Thanks for sharing your amazing story. It’s interesting that you were listening to Dire Straits as you were in dire straits. If the shark was 10-12 feet long, it could have been a mako, as I believe (I’m not a shark expert) they’re bigger than blues, but not as sleek.

The blue shark I saw in the Philippines while skin diving was 6-8 feet, max. Still, I got out of there in a hurry (not panicked, just earnest, yes). Luckily, my blue was not interested in me, as I had no Power Bars to use as chaff!

BTW, Sean, I’m a big admirer of yours. We all look forward to hearing about your adventures.

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Rick Donnelly April 5, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Sharks are a kind of hobby of mine and from what I know of GW shark attacks (on swimmers/divers/spear fishermen), I know that there is little risk to kaykers, in general, but that risk is certainly there. Some things of what one should be aware:

Sharks often bump a victim before an attack, so if you feel a bump on your kayak, this is not a desirable situation. It is not known if this is territorial behavior, but that really isn’t all that important to us as potential victims on the water. Being bite = bad (at least in my opinion, so I don’t think the reason for the attack is particularly important). If you watch shark feeding videos, you will often see sharks mouth or bump the bait with their heads before really sinking their teeth into the target, so it may just be a way of protecting themselves should the target prove to be hostile.

Sharks are, compared to the mammals they tend to eat, soft bodied and easily injured. This seems kind of strange to say, but under that tough skin, there is no bone, only cartilage. This makes them easily injured by a thrashing hard-body (such as a large seal). Hence their tendency to hit and run. This is also why so many who have been attacked by sharks and hit the animal a few times are still alive. Sharks are not as stupid, as some would like you to believe.

Many scientists and laymen believe that the hit and run behavior is how they taste their food and determine its edibility quotient, but I tend to disagree. I believe that this is simply how sharks protect themselves from a dangerously injured animal which could easily kill them with a well placed bite. Hit, wait for the animal to expire, feast. It’s a very practical approach to eating, especially when the shark has such a slow metabolism that one meal will last (possibly) for several weeks.

Most sharks are ambush predators and some are particularly aggressive in their approach. The really aggressive sort (seemingly more common in South Africa than in California, but it’s been seen here as well) will build up speed from below and crash into their target in an effort to provide sufficient force to totally disable (or kill) their target with a single bite/blow. This is the one that most keeps me from going out on the water in any boat smaller than my 17′ kayak. I really hope if this happens, I am able to land back on the shark with sufficient force to ruin its day.

Most attacks occur in particularly murky conditions (vis in the water up here is often below 20 feet, even in the more pristine parts of Monterey Bay), so be aware that lower visibility may lead to sharks making more “mistakes” when trying to differentiate between a seal, sea lion, paddler, or surfer. The double blade paddle and general shape of kayaks and surf boards do have a sea mammal shape when viewed from below, particularly when back lit by the sun.

Well, that’s enough for now, but I’ll finish with this caveat:

Avoid any place where shark feeding/diving is practiced. Some believe that sharks are too dumb to associate food presented at the end of a pole with the human doing the presenting, but this isn’t at all likely. At the Monterey Aquarium, Mola Mola were able to learn to associate a star shape on the end of a pole as a signal that food would be offered soon. If a mola can make this logical leap, it is highly likely that sharks can, as well. I’m convinced that they are at least that intelligent or they would not have survived for over 400 million years.

Rick

PS: Eric, you can edit or shorten this, if you wish – it’s kind of a wall of text :).

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Eric Soares April 6, 2011 at 8:05 am

Thank you Rick for your thoughts. What you say makes sense to me. Your last caveat is important. Some “entrepreneurs” make their money by taking tourons (aka “stupid tourists”) on “shark tours” where they can “feed” a white shark while sitting in a shark cage and experience the fear firsthand. They can then tell their buddies how brave they are. Sort of like African safaris.

I think this shark feeding/diving should be outlawed, because it attracts sharks, makes them familiar with people, and bad things can happen later to kayakers, surfers, swimmers. It’s like feeding grizzly bears in Jellystone park. It’s stupid and irresponsible. That’s my two cents.

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bob graham September 27, 2016 at 11:13 pm

real simple & guaranteed ! Several cheery bombs (fireworks) tie each to rock & light w/wind proof lighter. hold for 1 or 2 seconds & drop in water. Shark will haul ass!! lol—–works!!!!!!!

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