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.
South Africa is where the great white was first declared a protected endangered species in 1991. Since then shark cage diving has grown into a thriving tourist industry, and the country’s built up quite the shark rep for itself. Dyer Island located just off Cape Town even earned itself the nickname Shark Alley due to the large variety of species in the area.
The practice of chumming — baiting sharks closer to shore for tourists — most likely hasn’t helped reduce South Africa’s number of shark attacks: it’s the third highest country on the International Shark Attack File, having witnessed 12 fatal attacks in the last 5 years. Following the drama of this year’s J-Bay final, Australian legend and longtime South Africa resident Derek Hynd said he was convinced that shark cage diving was to blame for an increase in attacks.
However, it’s important to remember that different shark species favour different niche habitats. The huge seal colonies that live off of Cape Town are what really lure great whites to the region. Kosi Bay estuary, meanwhile, located at the north-eastern extremity of South Africa, is a well known hot spot for bull sharks, known to the locals as Zambezi. On the east coast around Durban the beaches are netted so there’s not too much to worry about there but up and down the rest of the coastline you’d do well to ask locals for info and take standard precautions such as avoiding known feeding times, surfing alone etc.
Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa’s most famous wave, is not its sharkiest, but sightings there are far from uncommon. In 2003, Taj Burrow left the water during a heat after spotting what he thought was a great white, refusing to get back in when contest organisers told him he was mistaken and that the heat would continue regardless (“I’m from Western Australia, and I know what a great white looks like,” was Taj’s not unreasonably response); then in 2013 an experienced local open water swimmer was killed by a great white towards the bottom of the point. After Mick’s incredibly close encounter with what’s suspected also to have been a great white, at this stage it seems unlikely that tour will return to J-Bay in 2016.