Do Sharks Really Attack Paddle Boarders? A Safety Guide

Shark Week came and went for yet another year, ending the public’s fascination with sharks for the time being. If you ever paddle board in the ocean, though, you have to keep sharks in the back of your mind the whole time you’re out on the water (unless you live in the UK). Are you likely to be attacked by a shark? Do these creatures even go after paddle boarders?

While it certainly depends, sharks can and do attack paddle boarders. In 2017, sharks went after both a paddle boarder and a kayaker in Santa Barbara County, California on the same day, says Noozhawk.com. While no one was hurt, it goes to show that you can never be too safe on the water. That’s not the only shark attack on paddle boarders, either.

In this guide, we will tell you everything you need to know about shark readiness when paddle boarding. From incidents that have happened and could again to why sharks go after paddle boards, you don’t want to miss this article.

How Do Sharks Attack?

While reading, keep in mind shark attacks are extremely rare, and usually a case of mistaken identity. I snorkel and scuba around sharks all the time without problems. But surf boards and paddle boards resemble a seal or other shark food. Shark attacks don’t even make our list of top diving risks.

Believe it or not, every shark attack doesn’t fit the same profile. If you read through news articles or watch a story about a shark attack, the newscasters will say the attack was either unprovoked or provoked. What does this mean? Let’s differentiate between the two terms now.

Unprovoked Attacks

An unprovoked attack is any in which the shark attacks first. You may be the victim of three types of unprovoked attacks: bump and bites, sneak attacks, or hit and runs. Here’s an overview of these.

  • Bump and bite attacks: A bump and bite attack occurs when the shark knocks into the person. If you’re in a kayak or on a paddle board and the shark pushes you off, that’s the first part of a bump and bite. Then the shark attacks.
  • Sneak attacks: If you’re very deep in the ocean, then you could become the victim of a sneak attack. This involves the shark sneaking up on you and launching their attack from behind.
  • Hit and run attacks: There are also hit and runs. With one of these attacks, the shark may be further near shore, trying to feed. They see a person swimming or riding on a vessel and think it’s food. The shark then bites, realizes their mistake, and moves on for greener pastures.

Provoked Attacks

A provoked attack is our fault as people. If we think we can touch a shark, take a picture with them, or reel them onto a boat before they’re dead, we often find out how wrong we are. The shark will defend itself, using its gnashing teeth to bite.

I would love it if everyone spent a few minutes learning the importance of sharks

Are Sharks Really as Dangerous as They Seem?

In the intro, we mentioned Shark Week. If you watch that annual special, then it probably seems like shark attacks happen all the time, right? That’s actually very far from the truth. Television programs and news stories sometimes like to hype up sharks and their propensity for attacking.

According to Wikipedia data on sharks, in the United States alone, 16 shark attacks will occur over a year. On a two-year basis, one person will die from a shark attack. Expanding the borders even further, across the world, there will be 80 shark attacks in any given year.

The Guardian notes how 66 shark attacks occurred around the world in 2018 alone. Of those attacks, four people died. Almost half of those attacks occurred on US soil, 32 in all. One person died from those US-based attacks. Most of the shark attacks were limited to Florida. Still, in 2017, the US had 53 shark attacks total, so last year, the numbers were down.

This all goes to show that shark attacks happen a lot less often than most people think. That may have you wondering then, why do people fear sharks so much? As we said before, part of it is undoubtedly attributed to hype. When a shark attack does occur, it’s a big news event for several days. If sharks even get spotted swimming around in an ocean, people freak out.

The movie Jaws has also stuck in our subconscious, although it’s old and we all know it’s not real. People may have seen the movie as children and have held onto that deep-seated fear of sharks ever since.

It’s perfectly natural to fear sharks. In fact, you should. Going into the ocean with a fearless, blithe attitude can result in a serious injury at best and a fatality at worst. However, you should also understand that shark attacks are rare and deaths from these attacks even rarer.

And our ocean’s shark populations are under major increasing threat from fishing and unnecessary slaughter for shark fin soup and mythical libido-enhancement products. Sharks play an important role in the ocean ecosystem. Drastic changes in shark populations will have impactful negative results on the entire ocean.

Do Sharks Attack Paddle Boarders?

That brings us to the question, do sharks attack paddle boarders? Yes, absolutely. It’s not only paddle boarders that sharks will go after, either. Kayakers, swimmers, or just about anyone in the ocean could become a target.

We will talk more about why this is in the next section. For now, we’ll discuss recorded incidents of sharks attacking paddle boarders.

Let’s begin with the article we linked you to in the intro. Per that article, in July 2017, on the southern coast of Santa Barbara, California, not one but two shark attacks occurred. The first was on a paddle boarder and the second a kayaker.

The paddle boarder/shark encounter occurred at 8 a.m. that day. The shark measured about seven feet long, maybe eight feet. The paddle boarder, who’s a SUP rider, noticed the shark went beneath the board. Then the shark came up and took a big chomp out of the board, leaving a bite with a width of seven inches.

The paddle boarder had no injuries.

It was a similar story for the kayaker, a man named Bret Jackson. He says the shark came up on the side of his kayak, bit at the boat, and knocked the vessel over in the process. Jackson told reporters that he went underwater and was still in the kayak after the shark flipped it, but he was now upside down. He climbed aboard the capsized kayak and soon after got help.

That’s far from the only incident where a shark went after a SUP rider. In 2018, a paddle boarder in Hawaii got attacked by a shark, says the Huffington Post. This attack involved a man, 25, who got knocked off his board by the shark. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as lucky as the first victim, as he got his leg and right hand bitten. While he did survive, he came out of it with one fewer limb.

The shark that attacked was a tiger shark that measured 12 feet in length. The Kukio Beach accident was far scarier than the first and proves what a hungry shark can do.

While those two incidents are the most recent, they’re surely not the only cases of a shark deciding they wanted to check out what a SUP rider was up to, often to the detriment of the rider.  

Why Do Sharks Go After Paddle Boarders?

So why do sharks attack paddle boarders like they did in the two incidents we discussed above? As we said in that section, sharks don’t hate paddle boarders specifically. They also don’t have a beef with kayakers or swimmers. If they attack humans, there’s a reason for it.

No, it’s not to eat us. Sharks have their own diet, and humans aren’t on the menu at all. Some sharks are considered planktivores. This means they primarily consume plankton. From the megamouth shark to the basking shark and whale shark, these species have facial features that allow them to suck up the water and pass plankton through to their gullet.

The rest of the sharks are carnivores or meat-eaters. Smaller shark species will eat crustaceans, molluscs, and fish daily. A bigger shark can’t subsist on those foods alone, so they supplement their eating with mackerel, tuna, porpoises, sea lions, seals, and dolphins. These sharks may even prey on smaller sharks.

Tiger sharks, the same kind that attacked that Hawaiian SUP rider in 2018, typically eat turtles. Blue sharks prefer squid and hammerheads like rays. So why target paddle boarders, swimmers, and boaters? Here are a few reasons.

They Think the Paddle Board Is Food

Bigger sharks enjoy equally sizable prey, as we said above. It makes sense then that if they see a paddle board sitting in the ocean, they may mistake it for a delicious seal. That seems to be the case of what happened with the sharks in Santa Barbara in 2017. In both incidents, the sharks took bites out of the kayak and paddle board respectively.

Do you really think the sharks wanted to end up with a mouthful of foam or plastic? Of course not. They probably thought the board was food, then left when they found it wasn’t. It’s a hit and run attack in action.

They’re Scared by the Board

You might not think so, but sharks have fears, too. The food chain dictates that a bigger creature eats a smaller one, that creature eats something even smaller, and so on and so forth. Thus, if you have a good mid-sized shark swimming about and they see this ginormous paddle board, they’re going to get scared. To them, they could assume the board is a predator coming to eat them.

Should you fall off your board or even begin moving it quickly with your paddles, that’s going to upset the shark even more, as they feel disoriented. A confused, scared shark could attack.

Your Motions Have Intrigued Them

Other times, the shark isn’t scared by you so much as they’re curious. This goes for boaters, swimmers, SUP riders, and anyone out deep enough into the ocean. Here you are, doing erratic movements, splashing, maybe even speaking or yelling, and the shark doesn’t know what to make of you. Thus, they come up to you.

To you, it looks like the shark is poised to attack. In reality, the shark just wanted to see what was going on. However, the intentions of a shark very rarely get taken into account after an attack.

If this section didn’t quite make it clear, your reactions very much dictate what happens if a shark swims your way. By you panicking, you often act erratically. This scares, confuses, or upsets the shark even more and could end up encouraging an attack where none may have happened otherwise.

How to Prevent Shark Attacks When in the Ocean

Does that mean you should sit or stand still on your paddle board should you notice a shark coming by? Not necessarily. There are a slew of things you should do if you see a shark in your midst. Let’s talk about these more now.

Don’t Linger When Sharks Come Near

Often, if there’s a shark sighting in the area, you’ll know before you get in the water. That said, should you ever find yourself in the ocean while a shark swarms, you want to get out ASAP. Do this smartly and safely of course, but don’t hang around in the water under any circumstances. Now is not the time to take a cool picture or video for social media. It’s not worth your life.

Never Try Touching a Shark

It should also hopefully go without saying that reaching out to touch a shark can cost you your life. Sharks are not domesticated animals. If you put your hand out, they’re going to interpret that as their next meal and take a huge bite. The shark could then pull you into the ocean, whip you around, and continue attacking.

Know What Brings Sharks Close

When people fish in or around the ocean with live bait, a hungry shark could pass through. Even if they can’t eat the bait, surely there’s fish around, right? Thus, if a lot of people go fishing in the body of water you’re thinking of using for SUP riding, it may be time to reconsider.

Stay Away from Steep Drop-offs and Sandbars

Although you’re riding instead of swimming, it’s a good rule of thumb that the further you get out into the water, the more your risk of a shark attack could increase. These creatures like drop-offs and sandbars especially.

Keep Your Motions Controlled

Remember before how we mentioned that your movements can confuse and upset sharks? Always be conscious of what you’re doing on the water, especially if you happen to go into the ocean for any reason.

Limit Your Contrast

Sharks have pretty good vision when it comes to contrasting colors. If you’re riding your paddle board, choose a single-colored hue for the board. Also wear darker colors in one shade. Sharks even notice if you have a very apparent uneven suntan, so cover up if necessary.

Avoid Bright Jewelry

If you want to maintain the quality of your valuables, then it’s a good idea to go SUP riding without jewellery anyway. Another good reason to skip the necklaces, bracelets, and rings? They can reflect light. Sharks then mistake your jewellery for fish scales and get lured towards you.

Don’t Go in the Water After Dark

You can’t even always see a shark in the daylight, especially if the quality of the water is murky. You’re at an even greater risk of a shark attack if you’re swimming at dusk or dark.

Never Go Alone

Whether you have a shoreline buddy, someone who knows where you are and what time you’ll finish riding, or the watchful eye of a lifeguard, be smart. Don’t venture into the ocean by yourself.

How many shark attacks occur in Hawaii per year?

Hawaii borders the Pacific Ocean and has more than 100 beaches. You’d naturally expect this state to have more than its fair share of sharks, then. Actually, every year, Hawaii reports between two and three shark attacks. Most of the time, people survive these attacks.

What time of day do sharks attack?

Sharks are more likely to come out at two times a day: twilight and nighttime. They do favor the warmer weather, too, but in Florida, shark attacks can continue into September.

Why do sharks attack from underneath?

This bump and bite style we described earlier in the article is a common one, but why do sharks favor it? Well, although they can see the contrast, sharks can’t see much else quite as well. Instead, by bumping a prey, they can get a feel for the prey’s electric forces. Yes, sharks have this ability. This tells the shark whether it’s worth pursuing the prey or if they’re better off finding a meal somewhere else.

Final thoughts

Shark attacks on humans are extremely rare, and usually due to mistaken identity. Remember we are visiting their environment, and not the other way around. So respect the shark and remember they are under great population strain due to unnecessary slaughter because of shark fin soup, mythical aphrodisiac effects of cartilage, their undeserved vicious man-eater reputation and shark souvenirs.

Net fishing for other species removes sharks along with other marine life accidentally caught by nets. Sharks play a vital role in the marine ecosystem, and wanton shark slaughter is disrupting our oceans equilibrium. As smaller fish populations increase because their predators are removed, our coral reefs are increasingly becoming fish food and cannot regrow quickly enough.

Most of the time, sharks will completely ignore you. Scuba divers and snorkelers encounter them all the time. You’re much more likely to run across an aggressive Trigger fish or other dangerous marine life than you are sharks. Paddle boards, much like surf boards, resemble food to sharks. Just remain aware of your surroundings, and quietly paddle away if you see a shark. The vast majority of encounters are really just sightings and nothing more.

So as always, stay safe and have fun.


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Carlo Raffa

Carlo Raffa is a blogger, stand-up paddleboard enthusiast, water lover and local to Brighton city in the South of England. Paddle boarding is my escape and this is only the starting point. Being a larger guy at 260lbs I am finding it very good exercise as well, especially for building core muscles. This is something that believe it or not cycling 16 miles a day at 6 miles per hour doesn't seem to be doing. Paddle Boarding allows me to just grab my board and walk right through the busy bar filled beachfront between the two piers in Brighton and head straight out of shore. It's not long before the shouting and cheering of our buzzing beach fade into just the lapping waves and the people to just small dots of the Brighton shoreline.

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