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Captain’s Diary: The Difference Between a Great White Shark Encounter and an Attack | Outside


I have encountered a fair share of white sharks in my work and play life at sea. We are blessed here in the Santa Barbara Channel with a robust and seemingly growing population of toothy creatures. They make an admirable apex predator, at least until something bigger and stronger (like an orca) comes along.

I’ve had relatively intimate times with these creatures that some of us at sea affectionately refer to as “the owner.” When fishing on my charter boat they sometimes swam close to investigate because we had fish on the line, bait in the water and maybe a little blood on the decks that was leaking through the scuppers.

Most of the time they swam close to investigate and not seeing anything as big as they usually hunt (a sea lion for example) they would swim away.

Once a big one opened up and clogged the lower unit of one of my outboards, but luckily not hard enough to do any damage. Other times they would swim right out of my bait tank, and they sounded like they were sniffling, much like we sniffle when we walk past the open door of a candy store.

Personally, I love reading and studying about white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias). They are protected and we are not allowed to fish them for recreational purposes. One of the most interesting reads is about the difference between an encounter and an attack. Science-based agencies want to be precise without being sensational, so they usually shy away from the word “attack.”

These large sharks tend to ask questions with their teeth rather than their brains. It’s not quite fair to call a question an intentional attack. Most bites are exploratory where the shark investigates an unknown object in its environment.

This is called an incident, although stitches may be needed. An attack can occur when a shark mistakes a person (perhaps in a dark jumpsuit with fins) for a natural food source such as a seal or sea lion. It is generally believed that sharks rarely actually and intentionally attack a human.

Agencies like the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (DFW) tend not to track incidents where a sighting has occurred without contact. They also don’t track incidents where a shark has been provoked, such as cases involving fishing or chumming.

While the number of non-injury incidents appears to be increasing (perhaps due to the increase in the white shark population), the number of injuries appears stable and remains low. With tens of thousands of people entering the water each year and just over 100 shark incidents involving human injury documented since 1950, statistics show that white sharks are not after us.

May it always be so!

– Captain David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is President of SOFTIN Inc., a non-profit organization providing boating opportunities to those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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