Kayaks And Sharks: Attack Statistics, Close Encounters & Safety Precautions

Oceans are home to some of Earth’s most fascinating – and sometimes, flat-out terrifying – creatures. But there’s nothing that will activate primal fears and make your fight or flight response kick in as fast as the sight of an exposed dorsal fin coming at you in the open ocean. 

Kayaks and sharks sound like a deadly combo, don’t they? 

But how high is your risk of turning into unintentional shark bait as a paddler, really? And what’s the best way for kayakers to deal with the dangers lurking below the ocean’s surface?  

That’s what I’ll be talking about today! 

Types Of Sharks & Where They Are Found

Shark attack underwater

Did you know there are over 400 shark species swimming in the world’s oceans? 

I’m not saying this to scare you or anything; it’s just fascinating to think about it – more than 400 species of these ancient creatures and some of the greatest survivors of evolution. 

And yet, realistically speaking, humans only have to be concerned about a handful of species, mainly the “Big Three” – plus hammerhead sharks – that are big enough to inflict severe injuries:

Great White Shark

Great white shark

Great White Shark – Jaws, anyone? All jokes aside, though, great whites are known for being extremely curious – which wouldn’t be such a big deal if we weren’t talking about the largest predatory fish on Earth. It’s not uncommon to see the sharks following boats around and sample-biting unfamiliar objects that cross their path. Unfortunately, that can also include humans. ISAF confirmed that great white sharks were involved in a total of 16 unprovoked bites in 2020. 

In the US, great whites can be found off the coast of central California.

Tiger Shark

Tiger Shark

Tiger Sharks are mainly scavengers, which sounds like good news. As for the bad news, they’re one of the species that are most likely to attack humans – second only to great white sharks. Out of the 13 shark-related fatalities in 2020, two can be traced back to tiger sharks. 

In the US, tiger sharks can be found in tropical waters – open and coastal – of the Pacific Ocean.

Bull Shark

Bull shark in Sea World Gold Coast Australia

Bull Shark – This species is as vicious as the name implies. These predators generally prefer shallow and murky waters, which, unfortunately, is where most people hang out. We’re not on their list of preferred prey, but that doesn’t change the fact that bull sharks still have the third-highest number of fatal unprovoked attacks – or 25, to be precise – in recorded history. 

In the US, bull sharks can be found off the coast of California, in the Pacific Ocean, as well as in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Hammerhead Shark

Large hammerhead sharks

Hammerhead Sharks – Their odd-shaped heads look awkward and funny, almost to the point where you’d forget you’re looking at actual sharks. Well, almost. I’m glad to report that there’s not much to be afraid of when it comes to hammerhead sharks. Since 1580, there were only 17 documented unprovoked attacks that involved hammerheads. And none of them were fatal. That said, they are defensive – and will attack when provoked.

In the US, hammerhead sharks can be found in the shallow waters or above continental shelves, like the Atlantic coast in Florida, for example. 

There’s one thing I need to warn you about here: 

When it comes to reported shark attacks, accurate identification of the attacking species will not always be possible. 

So, this list should be taken with a grain of salt.

I mean, you can’t expect someone to memorize every single detail about the shark that attacked them. In the heat of the moment, all you think about is survival. And that means that lists like the one I showed you above are often skewed and focus more on easily identifiable shark species. 

Kayak Shark Attack Statistics: A Look At The Numbers

Great white shark with open mouth

Before we look at the numbers behind kayak shark attacks, I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between unprovoked and provoked attacks

Unprovoked attacks are incidents that occur with no previous human provocation or aggravation of the shark. In these cases, the victim does nothing to prompt the attack. 

Provoked attacks are defined as incidents where the human initiates the interaction with a shark in any way, including trying to touch it, attempting to feed the shark, or otherwise harassing it. 

Why is this important? 

In 2020, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) investigated 129 alleged shark attacks that were reported worldwide. Out of the reported 129 attacks, less than half – or 57, to be precise – were ruled unprovoked shark bites, while 39 were regarded as provoked attacks. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the numbers: 

ClassificationTotal Bite Count
Unprovoked Attacks57
Provoked Attacks 39
Boat Attacks 
Scavenge 1
Public Aquaria1
Doubtful 3
No assignment could be made
Not Confirmed 16 
Total Cases 129 
Data by University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File

If you’d prefer to look at these numbers from a different perspective and talk about where most shark attacks happen, check out the table below for the global look at unprovoked shark bites: 

CountryFatalTotal 
USA333
Australia618
Republic of Fiji01
French Polynesia01
New Caledonia01
New Zealand01
St. Martin (Caribbean)11
Thailand01
Worldwide1057
Data by University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File

The US leads the way with 33 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks, 58 percent of the worldwide total. 

And since we already mentioned the United States: 

Did you know that there’s an area known as the Red Triangle in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of northern California, where a staggering 11 percent of all great white shark attacks occur? 

Or, in terms of the US alone, 38 percent of recorded attacks involving great whites. 

Add this to your list of famous triangles to avoid – and excuse the bad Bermuda Triangle pun. 

Short-term trends still indicate that the risk of getting bit by a shark remains extremely low, even more so if you consider how many people participate in on-the-water sports every year. 

Are shark attacks a possibility? 

Yes. 

But you have a significantly higher chance of getting struck by lightning – and being involved in a fatal car accident – than being bitten by a shark. Statistically speaking, of course.

Do Sharks Attack Kayaks?

Shark fin on the surface of the ocean.

Are sharks attracted to kayaks? Would they attack at the mere sight of your tiny plastic boat? Or are these creatures – and their jaws – unfairly demonized and represented as bloodthirsty killing machines? 

There’s a lot to unpack there.

For starters, you have every right to have a fear of sharks. Any concerns you might have about the possibility of encountering them while kayaking is more than understandable. 

I mean, we are talking about one of Earth’s most ancient apex predators here. 

Anyone in their right mind would be a bit apprehensive about hitting open waters and – possibly – encountering a shark. 

But here’s a bit of good news: 

Sharks aren’t typically attracted to kayaks. And, shark attacks on kayaks are rare.

And I’m not saying this just to calm you down, either. Kayakers have only been involved in 0.35 percent of documented fatal shark attacks

Of course, one could argue that’s still 0.35 percent too many, but I think it’s safe to assume that no, sharks are not attracted to kayaks. Most of the time a shark encounter is a case of mistaken identity; an ocean kayak may appear like a sea lion or seal basking on the surface.

Even when sharks do approach, most of these hit-and-run encounters – for lack of a better word – are considered exploratory bites. The shark is usually just trying to figure out what you are and whether or not you’re – well, palatable.  

I know that doesn’t help make a scenario in which those jaws are biting down on your ‘yak seem any less terrifying. But if I had to choose between a shark chomping on my kayak and my arm, I would happily choose the former – especially if it means avoiding the latter. 

As for what colors attract sharks, it’s true that they’re attracted to high-contrast colors. 

Against the murky background of the surrounding water, bright yellow and orange seem to spark their interest. But again, it’s not the kayak color; it’s the contrast. 

Kayak Fishing And Sharks: Is Kayak Fishing Dangerous Because Of Sharks?

Great white shark attack

Kayak fishing and sharks just sound like an open invitation for trouble, doesn’t it? And I’m not going to sugarcoat it; offshore kayak anglers generally have a higher chance of encountering a shark at some point. 

Dealing with sharks is a genuine concern for anglers. 

Kayak Fishing Tip | How to Avoid Sharks While Kayak Fishing

Now, here’s the thing:  

Sharks will mainly be after your bait and the fish you’re reeling in. But you and your kayak might still get caught in the middle, causing things to escalate from an encounter to a full-blown attack. 

With that in mind, I think you’d agree with me when I say that it’s best to minimize your chances of an encounter in the first place – rather than doing damage control later. 

Here are a few things kayak anglers can do to make their ‘yak appear less like an open buffet to the hungry sharks lurking in the area:

  • Do not let any blood drain into the water. Chumming the waters is generally a terrible idea. You’ll attract the fish, sure – but you’ll also attract some sharks. The same goes for bleeding the fish. Their sense of smell is – well, nothing short of miraculous.
  • Be extra careful when retrieving your catch. The fish will frantically try to escape; the vibrations and splashing on the surface, right beside your ‘yak, could attract sharks. And the fact that you’ll have one – or both – arms reached out to the side doesn’t help your case.
  • Stow your catch securely. That means don’t leave the fish dangling off the side of the ‘yak in the water. That’s just an open invitation to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
  • Don’t let fish flop around inside your ‘yak. You might not think it’s loud, but to a shark, it’s like ringing the dinner bell.
  • Use a shark shield. I’ll talk about shark deterrents a bit more later, but in essence, this device will create an electrical field that’s supposed to deter sharks. The key word here is “supposed” – these co-called shark shields aren’t always effective.

Shark Encounters: What To Do If You Encounter A Shark While Kayaking?

Shark fin above water

Okay, let’s assume you did everything you could to prevent a potential run-in with a shark. Your odds of an encounter were already pretty low. So, what if you still find yourself face-to-nose with this apex predator in the middle of open waters? 

Here’s how to handle the encounter in the safest way possible – and improve your chances of survival: 

  • Don’t panic. You’re allowed to be afraid, of course – but you’re not allowed to panic. You need to have the presence of mind in a scenario like this. Just because there’s a shark investigating your kayak, it doesn’t automatically mean it wants to eat you.
  • Alert others in your group. And just in case this wasn’t clear by now, yes, you should always be kayaking in a group. Sharks are less likely to go after the group; stick together and watch each other’s back.
  • Paddle calmly and quickly out of the area – and, if possible, to the nearest shore. And avoid making any erratic movements or frantic paddling as you do; it will only attract the shark’s attention.
  • Don’t provoke the shark. Trying to hit the shark with your paddle – unless it’s absolutely necessary and the animal is already showing signs of aggression – would only aggravate the shark further.
  • Never approach a shark, especially if it’s feeding. You might get mistaken for a tasty meal.
  • Confront the shark with assertiveness rather than aggression. Maintain eye contact and let it know you’re not docile – but don’t start a fight you’re likely going to lose.
  • If you encounter a shark, let the authorities know. Document as many details as you can and report the incident; that goes for both shark sightings and close encounters. Contact the local Department of Fish and Wildlife for more information. 

And while I believe this should go without saying, please – PLEASE – do not attempt to touch the shark if it gets near. Use common sense, folks. 

Shark Attacks: What To Do If A Shark Attacks Your Kayak?

Great White Shark Jumping Out of Water

Spotting the shark in time and keeping your distance is one thing. But what do you do if a shark bumps a kayak? 

That’s a whole different scenario. 

The number one thing is to stay out of the water. I get that the protection offered by your kayak doesn’t sound like much – but it’s all you’ve got out there. 

And it’s certainly better than nothing. 

If you end up in the water, you’ll have two options. One would be to re-enter the ‘yak swiftly – but if that’s not possible, then keep your eyes on the shark and remain as still as you can until you get a chance to try re-entering the kayak again. 

It’s crucial that you remain calm rather than splash excessively or make any erratic movements. 

Here are a few more things to keep in mind: 

  • If the shark is becoming increasingly aggressive, use your paddle to strike its nose and push it away from the kayak. 
  • If you’re using a shark shield, switch it on, and deploy shark repellent chemicals. Now’s the time to go all out in terms of shark deterrents. 
  • If the shark grabs you, start fighting. Go crazy. Give it everything you’ve got – and do not give up until the shark does. Strike the eyes, nose, and gills with as much force as you can. 

And what if someone in your paddling group gets bitten by a shark? 

Again, the most important thing will be helping the victim out of the water. The odds of survival are generally high – as long as the person receives immediate stabilization and care. 

That brings me to my next point: 

  • Help the victim out of the water immediately. The shark probably let go for good – but maybe it’s planning a second round of attack. 
  • Apply pressure to the wound. Controlling blood loss after the attack is the top priority – and a first aid kit will be invaluable in a scenario like this.
  • Elevate the limb, keeping it raised above heart level.
  • Do not let the victim look at the wound. The damage can be horrific, and it could send the person into shock. 
  • Head to shore and call 911 immediately to seek emergency medical assistance. 

Let’s Talk Prevention: How To Prevent A Shark Attack

Great white shark with open mouth

No one can guarantee that these measures and safety precautions will always be effective – but that’s not the point, anyway. Doing something to minimize the risks of a shark attack will always be better than doing nothing at all and just hoping things will work out for you. 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as they say. 

So, what can you do to keep sharks at bay and minimize the chances of close – and potentially deadly – interactions with these apex predators? 

Here are a few precautions you can take to stay shark-safe while kayaking

  • Check local shark reports. Coastal areas with shark-infested waters will usually have warning signs. If the area has had recent shark attack reports, avoid it; don’t go looking for trouble.
  • Avoid kayaking at dusk and dawn; these are prime hunting times for sharks. Plus, there’s that whole reduced visibility thing, which could lead to mistaken predation.
  • Stay away from cloudy river mouths; that’s usually bull shark territory.
  • Avoid known shark feeding areas – if you don’t want to get mistaken for a meal, that is. Unless you’re kayak fishing, stay away from any larger groups of fish.
  • Avoid excess splashing – especially if you see a shark approaching. All you’ll manage to do is grab the shark’s attention and make yourself appear like an animal in distress.
  • Stay in your kayak. It might not necessarily feel like it, but your kayak is the safest place to be when you’re approached by a shark.
  • Don’t dangle your feet or arms off the side of the ‘yak. And please make sure your dog stays in place, too.
  • Avoid wearing jewelry. I know that it seems like a strange recommendation, but sharks could mistake shiny objects, like jewelry, for the reflective appearance of fish scales.
  • Don’t enter the water if you’re bleeding. The shark’s ability to taste blood and trace it back to the source is insane.
  • Be aware of nature’s warning signs. Splashing water, feeding seals, and circling birds are all potential indicators that a shark might be near – and that it’s time for you to paddle away. 
Five ways to minimize the chance of being bitten by a shark

Sharks And Kayaks: Conclusion 

If there’s one thing I’d like fellow kayakers to take away from this discussion about kayaking with sharks around, it’s that shark attacks are rare. 

Again, I get why kayaks and sharks sound like a terrifying combination. Try not to let the fear of encountering a shark stop you from experiencing all the marvels of ocean kayaking. It’s an experience like no other – and it would be a shame if you missed out on it because you’re too busy worrying about sharks. 
Attacks are rare; fatalities are even rarer.