One of the biggest concerns surfers and aspiring surfers have when it comes to practicing their sport is the potential presence of sharks in the water.
In some areas, fears of sharks are largely unfounded. However, in other regions, it is important to be aware of the species of sharks that live in the surrounding waters and how much of a threat they pose to surfers.
While it should be noted that shark attacks, in general, are a very rare occurrence, when you’re surfing in an area like California, it’s always best to be informed.
Without further ado, let’s talk about the shark population in Californian waters and what you, as a surfer, can do to stay safe out there.
Shark Species in California
The waters around the coast of California are home to over 10 shark species. With that being said, most of these sharks are shy when it comes to human contact, and only a few pose any kind of potential danger to humans.
One of the sharks most commonly found in Californian waters is the Sevengill Shark. This is a relatively small shark with a sleek, streamlined body. Surfers don’t have to worry about this species because they tend to stick close to the ocean floor.
Surfers in California are more likely to encounter the School Shark, which can grow up to 2 meters long and likes to hang around in the shallows. However, these sharks are easily scared by humans and are generally considered to be harmless to people.
Swell Sharks are found in Californian waters, but since they only grow to about 3 feet long and prefer to roam around rocky reef areas near the ocean floor, surfers don’t need to worry. Much the same can be said for Gray Smooth-Hound Sharks, which are small and like to hunt crustaceans far from the water’s surface.
The Horn Sharks located around California are also not a threat to surfers. They are slow-moving bottom-dwellers in addition to being pretty small.
Pacific Angel Sharks pose a slightly higher threat because they live in coastal areas of shallow water and can deliver a painful bite if provoked. With that being said, this shark is not particularly interested in humans and generally keeps to itself.
When surfing in California, you might come across a Leopard Shark, identifiable by large, blotchy spots on its body. Don’t be alarmed, though. Leopard Sharks may be named after a big cat, like the much more dangerous Tiger Shark, but they are almost completely harmless to humans. There has only been one Leopard Shark attack reported in history, and there were no serious injuries involved.
Occasionally, a Common Thresher Shark will be spotted off the coast of California. This is a large shark, so it’s a good idea to be on your guard if you encounter one, but Thresher Sharks are notoriously shy and don’t typically approach humans.
If you see a Blue Shark while you’re out surfing, don’t panic, but remain alert. Blue Sharks don’t normally display aggression, but enough unprovoked attacks (with a total of 4 fatalities) have been reported that it’s wise to exercise caution around this species.
The Shortfin Mako Shark is another species that surfers should be aware of. Shortfin Makos are large and fast-moving with a high prey drive. Whilst their predatory instincts typically don’t extend to humans, 1 in 9 fatal attacks is attributed to this species.
Finally, Californian coastlines play host to the famous Great White Shark. Great Whites are beautiful, powerful animals with an unfortunate reputation. However, while it is true that the danger posed to humans by these sharks has been exaggerated (mostly through media), Great Whites are statistically the most dangerous shark species, with a recorded total of 314 unprovoked attacks. Therefore, this is the main shark to be on the lookout for while surfing in California.
Shark Attacks in California
Before we move on to learning how to stay shark-safe in Californian waters, let’s put into perspective how likely surfers actually are to be attacked by a shark in California.
California has averaged 1.8 shark attacks per year since 1926. Most of these were perpetrated by Great Whites.
You’re comparatively more likely to drown, die from a bee sting, or be fatally struck by lightning than you are to be involved in a shark attack in California. Nonetheless, it’s important to prepare for every eventuality.
Shark Safety: Surfing in California
So, how can you minimize your chances of shark attacks while surfing in California?
The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the sharks most likely to present a real threat and learn what they look like so that you can recognize them and act accordingly.
Great White Sharks present the biggest danger. You can recognize them from their very large size, grey or grey-brown coloring, pointed snout, and large fins.
The Shortfin Mako Shark is not as dangerous as the Great White, but it has been known to attack unprovoked on rare occasions. Their backs are dark blue, fading to a lighter blue on the sides. The tail is shaped like a crescent moon and features a lateral keel (protruding tissue) at the base.
Since Blue Sharks have a small number of recorded fatalities to their name, it’s also worth knowing how to identify this species. Look for a dark blue back and paler blue flanks, paired with long tail fins and a short dorsal fin. This shark has a pointed snout and big eyes.
If you see one of these sharks (or any shark that you can’t identify) while surfing in California, the best thing to do is to quietly and calmly exit the water. You might begin to feel panicked, but do your best not to splash. Remember, it’s very unlikely that the shark will want to attack you, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
To avoid drawing the attention of sharks as a surfer in California, try not to wear bright colors and avoid very large surfboards, especially with contrasting colors. Don’t surf in murky waters, or areas of water that are near fishing harbors, storm drains, piers, jetties, or river outlets. Try to stay away from areas that are home to lots of sea lions, turtles, or fish, since these attract sharks.
California is a great surfing destination, but surfers should be aware that there are several species of shark in the area.
Only the Great White shark is considered to pose a significant danger to surfers in California, although we also know that the Shortfin Mako and the Blue Shark are capable of causing fatalities.
While the chances of being attacked by a shark while surfing in California are statistically extremely slim, surfers in the region should know how to identify potentially dangerous sharks and exit the water on sight as a precaution. Californian surfers should also learn how to draw the least attention to themselves in the presence of sharks.