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You may have heard it said that when a white shark attacks a surfer or swimmer in the water, the shark has made a mistake. It has confused its natural food source, a seal or sea lion, with a human. Humans are not on the sharks menu, this has been common knowledge now for many years, but there are still around five or six fatal attacks on humans each year. So why is this happening? Mistaken identity? Or something else. The following is my personal opinion.

When a surfer puts on his/her wetsuit, and paddles out on their surfboard waiting for a wave, you could say the shape might resemble that of a seal on the surface, and that would then reasonably justify why a great white shark would decide to attack a human.


From watching these sharks in South Africa, and spending hours upon hours watching documentaries and reading up on these predators, I have a hard time putting the reason down to a simple mistake in identity. When a great white shark sees a shape on the surface that looks like a seal, it has two options. The first is to attack with full force…

A full on attack occurs when the shark is 100% sure that the object is worth using valuable energy to go for.

  Five or six people die each year from a shark, around 100,000,000 sharks die each year from humans

When this takes place, the one ton fish launches its self vertically from the ocean floor, and hits the seal on the surface at speeds of up to 30 mph. Often this is a very spectacular attack, with the shark flying out of the water, sometimes up to four meters high. The reason for this ambush attack is to protect itself, with the seal disabled in one hit, the shark can keep out of the way of its sharp teeth, and return to consume once the seal has bled to death.

surfer looks like sealThe second is when the shark isn’t completely sure about what it is seeing on the surface, so the shark will slowly swim up from the bottom, and check it out. White sharks have excellent eye sight, and use this sense to get a better idea of what it is they are interested in. But sometimes that’s not enough for a shark, they want to feel what it is. When this happens, the shark will place its jaws over the object, scientists call this ‘mouthing’. The shark clamps down with the same bite force as a human, hardly anything to a shark. The reason for this is to get an idea of what the object is, and if it’s worth pursuing further interest.

This is ‘Trix’ in Mossel Bay, showing her natural curiosity on our steel cage. She did this three times in the space of half an hour. Photo by Brian Scott.

This is ‘Trix’ in Mossel Bay, showing her natural curiosity
on our steel cage. She did this three times in the space of half an hour. Photo by Brian Scott.

Its worth saying at this point that white sharks are highly curious animals, they love to know what things are. Working on the cage boat in Mossel Bay, it wouldn’t be unusual for a shark to mouth the propeller, or steel cage attached to the side of the boat. Always done with care and gentleness. Perhaps not words you would expect to hear describing a shark.

When we hear of a human being attacked by a shark, the story usually involves the surfer losing a leg, or an arm. If death is a result, it is due to shock or loss of blood. So hang on a min, can that still be called an

That to me sounds quite tame, when we compare that with whats happening to those poor seals!

If a great white shark, cruising along the ocean floor looks up, sees a surfer and mistakes him/her for a seal, then it makes sense for that shark to attack the surfer, like it would a seal, doesn’t it? If this was the method of attack used on surfers, it wouldn’t be the case of losing an arm or a leg, it would be ‘game over’ in a second. There’s simply no surviving that kind of force. Fortunately these kinds of attacks are virtually non existent, which in my view rules out the option of mistaken identity.

Once the shark has removed a limb from a human, it usually then disappears, showing no further interested in consuming their victim, which again shows the lack of interest they have in hunting us. We are simply not worth the effort.

There is another theory I heard from a scientist in Simon’s Town, South Africa, last January.

During the summer months the white sharks are hunting fish and rays in the shallows, bringing them much closer to shore. While hunting they might encounter another predator, a shark, or in another case, a human.

To a shark this is no big deal, they have very tough skins, however to a human, it is a big deal, again it can mean losing a limb and bleeding to death

The shark then gives a threat display, by lowering the pectoral fins and opening its mouth, this is to say, ‘you are on my patch, this is a warning’. Another shark sees this threat and gets out of there as fast as its tail can manage! However usually the visibility is low in these cases, and so the human doesn’t see the shark, and carries on with their swimming or paddling activities. The shark reacts to being ignored by swimming up and giving a warning bite. In Mossel Bay many sharks displayed evidence of shark bites, usually on the flank, these scars could have been made in this way. To a shark this is no big deal, they have very tough skins, however to a human, it is a big deal, again it can mean losing a limb and bleeding to death.

The interesting thing about this theory is the fact that these sharks, the apex predator in the oceans, are actually viewing us as another predator in the water. There is certainly lots of evidence to support this by the behaviour of sharks around the cage boat.

There is a respect shown to humans by sharks, and sadly a severe lack of respect shown the other way. There is a lot to be said of a white shark’s intelligence, when you consider how many thousands of people enter the water each day, and how few cases there are of shark encounters (yes, we will now call them encounters, not attacks).

Shark attack surfers

Just one kilometre from Seal Island in Mossel Bay is a very popular tourist beach. There is no recorded attack on a surfer or swimmer by a shark on that beach.

It’s time to respect these animals as the supreme apex hunters they are.

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Words by Dan Abbott

Join our shark research and conservation eco-program. White Shark Africa is a white shark cage diving operator based in Mossel Bay, South Africa.

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  • Miguel

    I also believe, that in places where scuba diving centers practice shark feeding activities, they “teach” the sharks to be curious about human and approach to check if there are any treats available.

  • Bampster

    I disagree with the authors conclusion and here is why:
    I studied Marine Biology in college in the 70’s and have been surfing 45 years, but I am not a Marine Biologist as I pursued a different career altogether.
    Almost every photo of a suspected great white attack I’ve seen along the West Coast of CA the past few decades which resulted in injury to a surfer, most included extensive bite damage to the board.
    Many had very large bite patterns which expert Marine Biologists used to estimate the size of the shark and species involved in the attack.
    On several a very large area of the board was missing.
    In most of the reports I’ve read in CA of those surviving the attacks, the surfer related they were pushed violently upward out of the water several feet.
    I’d say most were lucky when the bite was constrained mainly to the board as indicated by photos showing large distinct bite pattern of missing section of the board and the tooth impressions as apparent in the photos.
    Those few who were attacked in the US including HI appeared to have died from massive blood loss to the open wound.
    Based on the information in this report an what I’ve read, a great white has the capability of literally biting a human in half in an attack.
    I believe the presence of the hard surfboard construction slowing the bite compression appears to have stopped the direct ability of the great white to quickly disable and/or kill the surfer as it typically encounters when attaching marine mammals.
    I don’t recall in hardly any of the reports I’ve read, where the shark came back for several additional bites after having bitten into or through a surfboard.
    A woman was killed north of Pismo Beach area a few years ago by a reported Great White. She was swimming near seals near a pier.
    A man was killed by a reported Great White in the San Diego Carslbad/Wind and Sea Area in So Cal several years ago. He too was swimming outside of the surf line as I recall but he bled out before medical personal could assist after having been assisted to the shore.
    I could be mistaken as most of those reports were prepared in CA and HI for news agencies but which typically referenced expert information provided by Marine biology shark experts!
    I’d surmise the shark attacks on surfers siting astride a surf board were discontinued as the shark realized its intended victim was not what it had expected to have encountered simply due to the presence of the hard surfboard and the lack of having obtained a high fat food source such as that of seals and sea lions which in CA are its primary food source according to articles.
    I believe many shark attacks on surfers appear to be a mistake on the part to the shark believing it was attacking upward toward a large marine mammal idly floating or swiming on the surface. We surfers in Central CA frequently see seals an sea lions floating atop the surf idly when not in pursuit of fish r just hanging out in call groups.
    It was in the news several times this past year showing video taken by a helicopter pilot filming along Santa Cruz area beaches showing several Great White sharks cruising along near surfers. No shark attacks have occurred in the area in quite some time according the the reports.

  • mandy jones

    Then we need to stay away where seals are at. And your’re right we humans are taste bad and unhealthy to them.q