Going out on the open sea offers its share of risks, such as getting shipwrecked or thrown overboard without anyone else witnessing your predicament. Apart from drowning due to exhaustion or dying from exposure, you also run the risk of a shark attack.
It’s true that the odds of finding yourself floating alone in the open seas are slim, and possibly slimmer still that you’ll be attacked by a shark. Still, information about which species are prone to attack and what to do (or not do) to defend yourself against or avoid an attack are worth knowing.
We list the world’s deadliest sharks you should watch out for, in the offhand chance you’re left in open water or find yourself in shark-infested beaches.
1. The Great White
Made infamous in pop culture by Steven Spielberg, the Great White is probably the most widely-known of all the deadly sharks. Their large bodies are propelled by a powerful tail that allows them to reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
Identification: Growing up to length of 16 feet and, in some instances, a whopping 20 feet, it’s not called the “Great White” for nothing. Its distinct features include a two-toned, thick bluish-gray body with a white underside, a stubby conical snout and pure black eyes.
As with most sharks, evolution has endowed this hunter with a brilliantly simple camouflage scheme; its bluish-gray body mimics the color of the ocean when viewed from above, and its white underbelly makes it difficult to see when viewed from below. Add to its features a large, gaping mouth studded with rows of razor-sharp, serrated teeth and you have a fish that remains undisputedly on top of the marine food chain. Generally weighing in at 5000 lbs., the great white is the largest carnivorous fish to swim the seven seas. Thankfully, like most sharks this beast is a solitary hunter.
Habitat: It can be found in virtually all oceans but mostly in the both the east and west coast of North America, off the coast of southern Africa, southern Australia and New Zealand.
2. The Tiger Shark
The second-largest and second most-likely to attack humans is the Tiger Shark. Like its land-dwelling namesake, the Tiger shark often hunts alone, and does so aggressively. The Tiger can be more dangerous to humans than other sharks, including the Great White; instead of taking a bite then swimming away, the Tiger shark is more likely to eat its human victims due to its nearly insatiable appetite. It’s this appetite that drives the shark to be more aggressive and eat almost anything when the opportunity presents itself – including other sharks. Normally they feed on dolphins, sea turtles, squid, fish, sea snakes, shellfish, saltwater crocodiles and the occasional whale, if possible.
Their appetite is so voracious, they’ve been touted as the “rubbish bins” of the ocean; unusual objects such as license plates, beer bottles, canned food, cow’s hooves, driftwood and other refuse have been found in some Tiger sharks’ stomachs. Tigers are probably the only one of the sharks dangerous to humans that congregate during mating season, and will hunt in packs at this time.
Identification: Tiger sharks aren’t named for their behavior. They actually look like tigers when they’re young, having black stripes on their bodies, stripes that fade and almost disappear when they reach adulthood. Physical characteristics of this shark include a blunt nose, a powerful jaw filled with several rows of serrated teeth. It may have a bluish green or dark gray color on their upper area, and a yellowish or white underside.
Habitat: This hunter prefers the warmer waters of the world as its hunting areas, with the Mediterranean Sea as its only exception. It thrives by stalking prey in the open ocean and in shallow coastal waters. It’s not uncommon to find a few specimens in the cold waters of Iceland and the United Kingdom, as they sometimes follow the Gulf Stream which offers warmer waters. As the seasons change, Tiger sharks migrate to warmer areas.
3. The Mako Shark
The Mako shark is often misidentified as a “mini” Great White shark, as it seems to resemble the Great White. Today there are only two species left of the Mako, the Longfin and the Shortfin.
What sets the Mako apart is the speed at which it can swim; it’s been clocked at top speeds of an impressive 60 miles per hour, slightly slower than the average Cheetah on land. If its appearance wasn’t frightening enough, it also likes to jump out of the water on occasion to “scan” above the water for prey.
Unlike other sharks, the Mako employs a different strategy when hunting and feeding; instead of taking one large bite then swallowing its prey, the Mako uses its speed to bite its prey’s tail to cripple it, then leaves it to bleed to death, returning later to consume its prey. The Mako is not only the fastest, it’s probably also the smartest; recent studies have discovered that this species has the largest brain relative to its body.
Identification: The Mako has features identical to the Great White, namely its conical nose, black eyes and menacing mouth with rows of sharp teeth. Its color, however, differs significantly from its bigger cousin; the Mako has an ultramarine-blue tinge to its upper body along with a creamy-white underside. Sizes range from 6 to 13 feet in length and it can weigh up to 750 pounds. It owes its remarkable speed to a large, crescent-shaped tail, coupled with a sleek body.
4. The Bull Shark
The Bull Shark is named after its stocky, broad body, and its characteristic aggressive and unpredictable behavior, plus its habit of first “head-butting” its prey – traits similar to a raging bull. The verdict is not out yet as to whether this is the most dangerous shark to humans, as the Tiger and the Great White still hold the #2 and #1 spots respectively for the most number of unprovoked attacks. Bull attacks could be higher, since some reports of shark attacks don’t clearly identify the offending species.
The Bull remains the third most deadly, but as it also attacks humans without provocation and can easily shift from breathing in oceans to rivers, it could someday edge out the Tiger for the title of second most deadly. Bulls are the slowest of the deadliest, as they can only accelerate to a maximum speed of just under 12 mph.
Identification: You’ll know a Bull shark when you see one – it has a wide snout and stocky, almost ball-shaped midsection. Its upper body is colored gray, while its underside is white; the tips of its fins are sometimes black. In terms of size, the females are heavier and shorter, growing up to 5 feet in length and weighing 500 pounds, while the males are longer and lighter, getting to lengths of up to 7 feet and weighing 200 pounds. The most unique trait of a Bull shark is not physical but physiological; it’s the only shark that can breathe and live in both fresh and saltwater.
Habitat: The Bull Shark prefers to roam in warm, shallow waters all over the world, but can survive even in fresh and brackish water. This ability allows them to extend their habitat to the Amazon and Mississippi Rivers, and any lakes they can access. This ability, combined with its aggressive nature and huge appetite make them a real threat to humans living close to shallow waters.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark
No less than renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau said that the Oceanic Whitetip was “the most dangerous of all sharks”, citing how these sharks would quickly attack shipwreck survivors in large groups. Cousteau even argued that these wily creatures, although small compared to the Great White, have killed more people more efficiently and must be considered more dangerous than they appear. This relatively small species gained notoriety in 1945 when the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and many of the ship’s 900 or so survivors were attacked and eaten by groups of the Oceanic Whitetip.
It’s this species that inspired the term “feeding frenzy”, suggesting that it’s a bloodlust-driven and random biting and feasting on prey. In fact the opposite is true; when Oceanic Whitetips attack, it’s actually a coordinated effort where many individual sharks take turns biting and overwhelming prey as a means to feed. Experienced seafarers have nicknamed this shark as “sea dog” due to its behavior of hunting as a pack.
Identification: The Oceanic Whitetip can be of a bronze, brown, bluish or grey color on its upper body, with a white or yellowish tint to its underside. Its largest recorded specimen was 13 feet, but the average specimen is usually 9.8 feet in length. The heaviest specimen found weighed in at 370 pounds, with most specimens ranging from 124-190 pounds. Most of this species’ fins have white tips (hence the name), with an occasional mottling and black marks.
The dorsal (back) fin is unusually large, and round-shaped as opposed to triangular.
Habitat: This species sticks to much warmer waters, preferring to swim along the Equator. When seasonal changes cool these waters, the Ocean Whitetip will migrate to warmer places. They frequently hunt in depths as far down as 490 feet, and will feed during the day despite being mostly nocturnal.
How to prevent attacks
There are measures you can enact if you’re floating on the water and don’t have shark repellent. If you do have shark repellent, use it only when there’s a shark around; repellents are one-time use only and eventually dissipate.
To prevent attacks if you’re floating in the water:
- Avoid urinating. If you can’t hold it in, urinate in short spurts, spacing between spurts to allow the urine to dissipate.
- If you defecate, throw your waste as far away from you as possible.
- If you vomit, throw it as far away from you as you can or swim away from it.
- Should you need to swim, use strong, regular strokes.
- Swim away from schools of fish, or any dolphins or birds feeding.
If you’re in a raft or boat:
- Don’t throw any kind of waste overboard; sharks will come to investigate. Should it be necessary to dispose of waste, fling it as far away as you can, or alternatively row or paddle your boat far from the disposal area.
- Don’t fish when sharks are around.
- Never dangle or trail arms or legs in the water.
- Release any baited hooks.
- Avoid bright-colored clothing and shiny jewelry.
If you see a shark circling you or your group, an attack could be imminent. Do these to discourage or defend against an attack:
- Put your head underwater and shout; this is more effective if you’re in a group.
- Make noise and strong vibrations by slapping the water with cupped hands.
- If you have a knife, paddle, pole or improvised weapon, stab the shark in the snout, gills or eyes once it’s in striking distance.
These may be the five deadliest, but when floating in open water, treat all sharks as dangerous. Remember that sharks often hunt early in the morning, just after dark and at night, so keep your guard up during these times. Once you see a shark approach, focus and put up a fight; most sharks back off when they realize you won’t be an easy meal.