California Risk of a White Shark Attack

White Shark, Credit David McGuire

Over the past two decades, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has statistically estimated 1.8 human- shark encounters with humans per year off the west coast of North America per year. Deaths by a white shark attack averages approximately one every five years over the past two decades. Of all species in California, bites from species other than white shark (such as blue and hammerhead sharks) are very rare and usually involve fishing. Shark Stewards has developed these recommendations to minimize your risk from a serious encounter.

  • Avoid areas with high activity of seals in the water or where they are known to haul out.
  • Don’t enter the water in areas of known shark activity. Known hot spots in southern California include San Onofre, Seal Beach and Sunset beaches. Northern CA hotspots include Humboldt (Bunkers), Dillon Beach, Ano Nuevo and Pt Conception.
  • Pay attention to Nature’s signs. Circling birds, splashing water, a dead whale, feeding seals and dolphins may also indicate a shark is near.
  • Use the buddy system. Most shark attack survivors lived because they had immediate aid.
  • Don’t look like shark food. A dark silhouette may resemble shark prey. Long boarders have lowest risk with swimmers and divers the highest. Patterned wetsuits and surfboards are available and touted by some, but not well tested by science or time for this species. Shark deterrent devices are available, but generally less effective against a white shark that employs sudden ambush behavior.
  • Low light may add to a mistaken predation. White sharks have an incredible sensory toolkit but are also visual predators. These sharks may mistake swimmers or surfers as a seal or sea lion during hours of low light. However, with this species, most attacks occur during daylight hours.
  • River mouths or areas of low water visibility can increase risk. White sharks also frequent areas with deep channels and drop offs or canyons.
  • Don’t bleed in the water. If you have a cut get out. (The evidence of sharks attracted to menstrual blood or urine attracting sharks is inconclusive but believed not to attract white sharks.)
  • If you see a shark face it or point your surfboard at it. Alert others around you and gather together, stay calm and paddle away avoiding jerky, splashing motions and exit the water. Warn others ashore.
  • Observe the signs. Beaches are posted if a large shark is sighted or of a recent attack. Some beaches, like Stinson Beach have permanent educational signage warning beachgoers. Tweet and Instagram to others using the #SharkWatch tag, drone footage and alerts on social media often outstrip the news and can alert ocean goers where high shark activity may be occurring. White sharks patrol areas but are not strictly territorial, so in time the shark will leave an area.

Final Resort? Shark survivors have described striking the nose, eyes or gills as a successful (and last ditch) approach towards inducing the shark to release them. Return attacks with white sharks are extremely rare and the odds of survival are high with immediate stabilization and care.

White Shark Investigates Bait

Applying Technology to Prevention

Besides better observation tools using drones and evacuating the water when a shark is near ocean-goers, several technologies have been developed whose efficacy remain uncertain against white sharks. Some of these technologies include Shark Bandz using magnets and Shark Shields using an electrical field may act as a deterrent to shark investigations. Smart buoy systems that monitor sharks in an area and alert life safety officials have been tested off Newport Beach and documented incursions of white sharks, but the system was determined to be cost prohibitive by the city. Low tech solution includes stickers with eyes, or a disruptive striped pattern applied to the bottom of a surfboard board. Patterned wetsuits have also been developed to persuade these ambush predators that surfers aren’t their favorite prey (seals and sealions).

Report a Sighting: Shark Watch

See a shark? Add to the observation database by send out a tweet or instagram tagging SharkStewards and #SharkWatch. We will record the observation and share for research, and better management.