The World's Sharkiest Zones For Surfers
Western Australia, South Africa, Northern NSW, California, Florida & Reunion Island
Following Mick Fanning's fisticuffs with a shark in the 2015's J-Bay final, questions regarding the peaceful coexistence of surfers and sharks are more pertinent than ever.
How to deal with shark attacks, whether it be drum lines, nets, electromagnetic devices or investing in more scientific monitoring and research is a complicated and touchy political matter, but the bottom line for surfers is that big predatory fish and surfing don’t go together well -- in particular the great white, tiger and bull shark, whom out of more than 480 shark species are responsible for the majority of fatal unprovoked attacks on humans.
So we figured we’d take a look at some of the sharkier surf regions to host such species.
From a quick glance at the International Shark Attack File, the number of reported attacks per year over the last decade has remained more or less stable, ranging between 60 to 80 year – strange when you consider the total number of beachgoers on the planet today, but then the number of sharks has dramatically decreased. (Environmental activists Sea Shepherd estimate 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year; to put that in perspective, that's roughly 15 million sharks for every human killed by a shark.)
Nevertheless, you’d still do well to know a little about the following hot spots, listed here (very roughly) in reverse order of sharkiness...
When it comes to life-threatening fauna there’s no place like Australia. From deadly venomous spiders and snakes to saltwater crocs and box jellyfish, nature doesn’t come much more diverse and hostile than Down Under.
And sharks of course make up part of the list. To date Australia reports the second-highest number of shark attacks after the U.S., although far more fatalities (153 compared to just 35 in the States). In the last few years a great many of these fatal attacks have occurred in Western Australia, and the 'culprit' has generally been the great white.
Between 2011 and 2012, the state of Western Australia recorded a staggering 5 deaths in just 10 months over a relatively small portion of the coastline (there have been four fatalities in the state since). Many consider the bull shark to be the most dangerous shark species to humans as they favour shallow coastal waters, and the murky water conditions in which they like to hunt are often associated with highly populated areas. And yes, they can even swim a long way up rivers.
"I don't think I'm going to surf here in the contest again. They're still talking about next year, but I will probably not come" - Gabriel Medina
But the great white? An increase in numbers would seem to be the obvious explanation for this spike in attacks. Following in South Africa's footsteps, Australia declared the great white a vulnerable species in 1999 due to significant population decline, and many think they've made a strong recovery.
Because of the great white’s protected status, Australia’s recent shark culling policy required a special exemption which many animal-rights activists claimed to be unlawful. In fact, in Australia the shark cull was met with such fierce opposition that professional fishermen refused to collaborate with the government. The policy has since been largely abandoned.
The Margaret River WSL Championship Tour event was cancelled in April 2018 after two attacks occurred one morning at Cobblestones and Lefties, just a few km's south of Margaret's Main Break, prompting Gabriel Medina to say, "I don't think I'm going to surf here in the contest again. They're still talking about next year, but I will probably not come."
East Coast Australia
Historically, however, most shark attacks have tended to occur on the country's east -- and far more densely populated -- coast. Since 1990, NSW and Queensland have recorded 194 attacks with 13 fatalities (compared with WA's 66 attacks and 18 fatalities). In terms of surf spots, the 70km Evans Head to Byron Bay - Ballina stretch in northern NSW, has seen a particular spike in a relatively small geographical area, 11 attacks, 2 fatal, since 2014.
A study in late 2017 claimed 80% of fatal, unprovoked attacks in Australia are within 40km of waste water outlets, supporting the notion that sewerage attracts fish sharks feed on, and hence the likelihood of attack.
While the debate continues over the use of nets and drumlines, which has been successful in cutting down attacks elsewhere in the country, marine scientists have reached no clear consensus as to exactly why there have been so many attacks in northern NSW in recent years.
West Coast USA
Unlike the tiger shark that will just about eat anything, adult great whites are known to have a specific feeding preference for blubber-rich marine mammals (dolphins, seals, sea lions, walruses, whale carcasses, that kind of thing) and Northern California’s cooler temperate waters are known to serve as another rich habitat for them.
Colloquially referred to as California’s ‘Red Triangle’, this danger zone extends from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco down just south of Monterey Bay and then out beyond the Farrallon islands. Responsible for 3 of the 4 fatal attacks to occur in California in the last 10 years, the one exception involved a Great White incident in San Diego in 2008, although females are known to breed in warmer waters off the coast of Baja California).
But when it comes down to total numbers of attacks (just 33 over the last 10 years), California pales in comparison to the east coast of America...
East Coast USA
This mostly means Florida (717 attacks since records began), although North (52) and South Carolina (82) are also fairly high risk areas; in fact North Carolina hit the headlines this summer following a spate of 7 attacks within the space of a month -- an unusually high number. Two of these attacks occurred on the same day on the same stretch of beach, as two teenagers lost limbs in separate incidents. Between 2004 and 2014 alone, the state of Florida was the scene of over 200 shark attacks. But while the waters off the coast of Florida are well-known sharky territory, the main reason for such a high incidence of attacks stems from the millions of visitors that visit Florida’s white sand beaches every year. The more people in the water, the greater the chances of an attack.
It’s worth bearing in mind too that most attacks in Florida are minor. The state has only recorded two fatal attacks in the last 10 years and a total of 14 over the last 100 years or so. Juvenile white pointers and other man-eating sharks such as tiger and bull sharks are known to frequent the region, at times circumnavigating Florida’s pan-handle right into the Gulf of Mexico (possibly to give birth), but a higher percentage of attacks prove fatal in North Carolina, where the continental shelf drops off into deep water much faster.
The most famous shark incident in popular culture - possibly since Jaws - was the Mick's Fanning J-Bay Final in 2015. The fact that it happened live on air, as well as the fact that he wasn't actually physically injured, meant in terms of the global news cycle, it was literally everywhere. While as a story, it was huge, in terms of South African shark incidents, it was relatively very small beer.
With warm water and numerous rivermouths on the countries eastern Indian ocean coast and cold, nutrient rich seas home to huge marine mammal populations on the western Atlantic coast, and the confluence of the two at Cape Town, the physical conditions are prime for shark populations, and thus incidents. The Eastern Cape (home to J-Bay) sees the most attacks, followed by Natal and then Western Cape. 32 fatal attacks have been recorded since 1990, 10 of which were on surfers or bodyboarders.
With 7 fatal 7 attacks in 7 years up to 2012, Second Beach in Port St Johns has been labelled the 'Most Dangerous Beach in the World For Shark Attacks'.
Shark.co.za website states "Attacks are rare events, with an average of only six incidents per year. Since 1990 only 26% of attacks have resulted in serious injury and only 15% were fatal", which is either highly reassuring, or not reassuring at all.
Relatively unknown outside the Francophone world to non-surfers until recently, Reunion has made the headlines for a unprecedented spike in attacks since 2011, with surfing banned outright to varying degrees and the island's relatively numerous pro surf population all relocating to France.
21 attacks and 9 fatalities since 2011 made the island the global hotspot for shark attack deaths, with the area around St Gilles, just up the coast from the famous left of St Leu the epicentre of many of the incidents. The reasons why so many attacks have occurred almost out of the blue is a hotly-debated subject, with some claiming a government ban on shark meat consumption and the creation of a marine reserve in 2007 caused a spike in shark population, while others claiming overfishing of sharks' natural prey species and rapid development along the coast as the main causes.
Kelly Slater controversially weighed in on the debate following an attack in 2017, initially calling for a cull in line with the island's most prominent pro surfer Jeremy Flores, before quickly changing his mind (after a social media hammering).