If you kayak enough times in the ocean, sooner or later you’ll wonder if a shark is lurking behind or beneath your kayak. Sharks cause more fear than any other animal you might run into while kayaking in the ocean.
Most kayakers I talk to have some level of fear about sharks and what could happen if one attacks them in their kayak. And all of us surf YouTube for videos of sharks and kayaks just to see what it might look like to encounter a shark.
But the statistics of shark attacks on kayaks paint a different picture than one that would make you afraid every time you put your kayak in salt water.
And since knowledge is confidence and confidence helps with fear, let’s take a look at sharks you need to be aware of.
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Sharks To Look Out For
There are more than 500 species of sharks in oceans around the world, but there are only 3 or 4 that you need to primarily be aware of when kayaking. They’re called the “Big Three” and are the sharks most able to cause serious injuries or death from an attack. Adding the hammerhead to this list, that makes four.
- Great White
Great White Sharks
Great Whites are found off the coast of California, Northeast US, Australia, and South Africa. They can grow to 24 feet long and they eat anything from seals to dolphins.
Tiger Sharks have stripes across the tops of their backs and are mainly found in the Pacific Islands, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. They are usually 10-14 feet long with teeth that curve backward that are serrated to be able to cut through hard shells of prey.
Bull Sharks are highly aggressive and can not only be found around the world in warm, coastal, shallow waters but also have been found up freshwater rivers. They mainly eat fish, rays, and dolphins, but will eat anything they come across.
These top shark predators aren’t the only ones to look out for. Any shark within the 6 foot long plus range, if it bites you, can inflict serious injury. And this is because a shark’s teeth are designed not to bite and hold but to shear off chunks of flesh to be swallowed whole.
Okay, a little graphic I know, but that’s the reality.
But before you get too worked up about the species of sharks and what might happen should you encounter one in your kayak, let’s answer some common questions we kayakers have.
Do Sharks Like Kayaks?
Despite the hype and YouTube videos surrounding kayak and shark encounters, sharks are not necessarily attracted to kayaks. They are simply fish, doing what they do, feeding on both smaller fish as well as larger marine mammals such as seals and sea lions. This doesn’t mean they won’t follow your kayak, believing it to be prey. But most of the time they seem more curious and not necessarily aggressive or predatory.
Why do sharks like kayaks? Sharks don’t like kayaks but rather most encounters between sharks and kayaks appear to be cases of mistaken identity or a kayaker doing things that make them and their kayak seem like prey to a shark.
That being said, it’s small consolation to us kayakers when we’re paddling our kayaks on the ocean and a shark is actually following us or swimming near us.
This is anecdotal and mostly my opinion, but if you’ve ever seen a pedal Kayak like a Hobie pedal kayak that has ascillating fins that swish back and forth underwater for propulsion, it’s easy to see how a shark could mistake those swishing plastic fins for a seal or other marine mammal’s flippers.
Take a look at this video of kayak fisherman on pedal kayaks. You can skip forward to marker 4:00 on the timeline for a crazy look at the Great white right behind the kayak.
Though this video was certainly scary for these two kayak fisherman, the huge Great White shark that followed them seemed more curious than aggressive.
So if sharks aren’t actively looking for kayaks to attack, why are they anywhere near our kayaks, following us in kayaks or even occasionally attacking kayakers?
And speaking of attacks, let’s answer a question I had when I first put my kayak in the ocean.
Has a Shark Ever Attacked a Kayak?
In general, shark attacks seem common. Worldwide, according to the statistics, there’s one shark attack every 5 days. However, although it has and does happen, shark attacks on kayakers are much less common.
Someone who’s on a boat or swimming in the ocean where sharks are common are roughly 100 times more likely to get attacked by a shark than you are in your kayak.
But we know that sharks aren’t attracted to the kayak itself. So why are these shark attacks on kayakers even happening?
Total Shark Attacks Since 1779
How often are kayakers attacked by sharks? Out of 6,522 total global shark attacks since records started being kept in 1779, only 59 were attacks on a kayak. So that’s less than 1% of the total shark attacks were on kayakers.
Kayaker Shark Attack Fatalities
For all those shark attacks around 22% of them resulted in fatalities. But if we only look at kayaker fatalities, only 0.35% of shark attacks on kayaks resulted in fatalities.
And now some better news … for kayakers anyway.
A swimmer in the ocean has only a wetsuit for a shark to get through before they cause injury, while a kayaker has a thick plastic hull for a shark to bite first and then maybe figure out that you and your kayak aren’t prey before it actually does any harm to you.
It’s a small consolation I know, but that’s a big difference if you happen to have a shark try and bite your kayak.
Shark Attack Statistics
In 2021 the Shark Attack Stats were:
Global Shark Attacks
- USA – 47
- Australia – 12
- Brazil – 3
- New Zealand – 3
- South Africa – 3
- New Caledonia – 2
- Canada – 1
- Ecuador – 1
- St. Kitts and Nevis – 1
United States Shark Attacks
- Florida – 28
- Hawaii – 6
- South Carolina – 4
- North Carolina – 3
- California – 3
- Georgia – 2
- Maryland – 1
If we dig deeper into those stats, you’ll see that only 7 out of 50 states have even reported a shark attack and more than 50% of those are in Florida alone. This should help put you at ease when you are going out on your kayak in the ocean and realize there’s a very slim chance of ever encountering a shark.
But sharks do still follow kayaks and occasionally they attack a kayak.
So if they aren’t attracted to kayaks, why are sharks attacking kayaks at all?
Why Sharks Attack Kayaks
Sharks are natural predators that may be curious about what your kayak is out in the open ocean. Although you’re not a fish or a seal, sharks may look at your kayak and confuse it with prey. After following your kayak, the shark may attack you because your kayak’s profile from below looks like an ocean mammal.
Some of the prey that sharks love the most are sea lions and elephant seals, in particular. When a kayaker is out on the ocean, a shark may believe that your kayak is one of these very animals and attack you.
Do sharks think kayaks are seals? Sharks will commonly follow a kayaker out on the ocean believing it to be a seal. After following it, the shark may realize that your kayak isn’t a seal and swim away looking for other prey. But there are instances where a shark will continue believing the kayaker to be a seal and attack.
Sharks routinely bite object to test and see if they are indeed prey, which is probably one of the reasons they bite kayaks. Once they bite the plastic and realize it’s not tasty seal blubber, most times they break off the attack and swim away.
Although the chances of a shark attacking your kayak are low, in fact less than 1% of shark attacks are on kayakers, this is still a very scary situation for a kayaker.
So, what can you do?
What Color Kayaks Attract Sharks?
Does the color of your kayak matter in shark attacks?
There’s an age-old myth that sharks are more attracted to the color yellow and thus yellow kayaks, but since then it’s been proven that most sharks are colorblind.
So though it’s unlikely that sharks are attracted to any specific colored kayak, or kayaks in general, sharks are attracted to the high contrast of bright colors like fluorescent green or yellow, especially in dark, murky waters.
It appears that sharks are much more interested in the contrast of colors in the ocean than of the actual color of your kayak.
Can a Shark Sink a Kayak?
There’s no evidence of a shark directly causing a kayak to sink. But there is evidence of sharks attacking kayaks, putting large holes in the them, and thus causing the kayak to take on water. As a kayaker, if this happens, you’ll need to repair your kayak on the fly or quickly paddle to shore to avoid sinking out in the ocean.
Shark Bites on Hard Shell vs Inflatable Kayaks
It’s more difficult for a shark to put holes in hard-shelled kayaks, but there are other types of kayaks that are more prone to shark bites and holes such as inflatable kayaks.
Even though most high-quality inflatable kayaks are designed to withstand puncture, and they have chambers to slow or prevent losing all their air too quickly, non of them will withstand a shark bite.
An inflatable kayak, bitten by a shark, is going to leave you swimming in the ocean in a hurry.
Sharks Capsizing Kayaks
Still, there are a few cases of sharks easily overturning a kayak causing it and the kayaker to capsize into the ocean where the kayaker struggles to get back into their kayak and make it to shore safely.
One of the most famous happened off the shore of Santa Cruz and involved a Great White shark and a kayaker who was thrown from their kayak and had to be rescued by a nearby boat. Luckily the shark thrashed at the kayak and not the floating kayaker.
What You Can Do to Avoid Sharks and Shark Attacks
After all of our research, it seems that kayak and shark encounters are at best unpredictable. But there are things you can do to improve your kayaking safety on the ocean and reduce your chances of being attacked by a shark.
Avoid Areas Sharks are Known to Frequent
Florida, California, and Hawaii are responsible for over 80% of the US shark attacks. So simply staying away from those states coastal waters would greatly reduce your risk of shark attack on your kayak. (That being said, those states are great kayaking states with many kayakers enjoying their waters.)
Always Kayak With a Friend or Partner
I hesitate to say it this way, but having someone who can help you, call for help, or simply help you get back in your kayak if you’re knocked out by a shark … could save your life. Don’t kayak alone.
Don’t Splash Your Arms, Legs, or Paddles in the Water
This could inadvertently lure the shark to you as splashing in the ocean typically means distress or food to ocean predators.
Stay in Your Kayak
No matter what, and especially if you spot a shark, don’t ever make the mistake of getting out of your kayak and putting yourself in the water. And your dangling limbs over the side of your kayak will only make you look more like prey to a shark. If you’re hot and you want some water on you, carry a small bucket or scoop up water with your paddle. But avoid dangling your feet or hands in the water next to your kayak.
If you’re fishing, don’t leave your fish hanging on the side of your kayak. This leaves a trail of dead fish smell and blood behind you in the water.
Carry a First Aid Kit
Of the shark attack incidents on kayaks that resulted in fatalities, several of them were caused by the kayaker or their companions being unable to stop bleeding. They had no means to tourniquet or put pressure on wounds to stop blood flow. So even though an attack was over, the person succumbed to the blood loss from the bite.
Wear a Life Vest
While it may sound irrelevant, several kayak fatalities were caused by drowning after an attack. At the very least it’s good safety to wear a life vest and may aid in rescue or recovery if you are attacked.
These are some great ways to avoid sharks and even though it is a rare occurrence to be attacked by a shark, you should always be prepared and know the best way to avoid sharks on your kayak.
What to Do if a Shark Bumps or Bites Your Kayak
As I said above, there are some instances when a shark confrontation is just unavoidable and a kayaker had to deal with the situation. If you’re unable to avoid a shark or if one surprises you and bumps or bites your kayak, here are some things to remember:
I know this is a hard one, but it will do no good and you will most likely make the situation worse by making a panicked firsts response
Try to Keep the Shark in View
This may be difficult, but watch the shark to try and keep the shark in view. At least then you can see it and react or maneuver away from it.
Get to Shore
As quickly as you can but without splashing too much water, start to paddle toward shore. Shore is safety. If you can’t get to shore quickly, then try to keep an eye on the shark while you paddle for shore.
Try to Stay in Your Kayak
Your hard plastic kayak offers some protection from shark teeth and may allow the shark time to realize that the plastic shell of your kayak is not a tasty seal.
The standard Grizzly bear wisdom won’t help here—playing dead doesn’t work on sharks because they love eating dead and floating animals.
If you are being bitten, the common wisdom is to punch or hit the shark on the nose where its sensitive receptors are. Some say that you shouldn’t provoke the shark to further attack, but you’re going to find it very hard to just do nothing while you are being bitten by a shark.
There’s a YouTube video of a kayaker repeatedly smacking a hammerhead shark on the nose while trying to paddle to shore. Once the kayaker finally paddles to shore, the hammerhead was still following him even after repeated smacks on the nose with a kayak paddle.
Final Thoughts On Sharks And Kayaks
It’s largely a personal choice to paddle in the ocean. And the reality is that the ocean is the planet’s biggest wilderness with creatures in it that are bigger and more dangerous than you or your kayak are. You can either let that keep you from adventure and living your life or you can accept and minimize the risks and enjoy paddling your kayak in one of the most beautiful environments on Earth.
At the end of the day, all this focus on shark attacks is largely unfounded. The statistics make it improbable that you’ll ever be attacked in your kayak by a shark. And by following some simple precautions, you will most likely survive in the unlikely event you do encounter a shark while kayaking.
Follow those simple precautions, don’t take unnecessary risks, and paddle your kayak with confidence, staying prepared for anything you should encounter.