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Surfing Fearlessly: The Uncharted Waters of Shark Perception Among Surfers

Updated: Mar 22

In the realm of surfing - whether the waves are clean, choppy, or cranking - enthusiasts typically ride the tide without much hesitation. However, a recent study from the University of South Australia reveals a surprising statistic: 60% of surfers harbour no fear of sharks while riding the waves, even though over half of them have encountered a shark during their water ventures.

A tube wave great for surfing.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop - Unsplash

The findings are intriguing, considering the widespread fascination and surfers perception of fear associated with sharks. Dr. Brianna Le Busque, a behavioural scientist and conservation psychology researcher at UniSA, sees this as a positive development for shark conservation efforts.

Historically, sharks have instilled fear in surfers and swimmers, partly fuelled by exaggerated portrayals in contemporary shark-themed movies.

Dr. Le Busque emphasises that these sensationalised images have unjustly influenced public perception and hindered conservation initiatives.

A surfer entering the water
Photo by Blake Hunter - Unsplash

Surfers, being frequent ocean-goers, have a unique role in challenging these perceptions. Dr. Le Busque notes that surfers often comprehend the vital role sharks play in maintaining ocean health and generally support shark conservation efforts. However, the intricate relationship between surfers and sharks has not been extensively studied, making it crucial to understand these interactions for effective shark conservation and management policies.

The study, encompassing 391 surfers from 24 different countries (primarily the USA), unearthed the following key findings:

  • 60% expressed no fear of sharks while surfing.

  • 52% reported having encountered a shark while surfing.

  • 44% asserted that a shark sighting would not deter them from entering the water.

  • 17% had either experienced a shark bite or knew someone personally who had suffered such an incident.

Shark attacks on surfers are relatively rare, and when they do occur, they are often a case of mistaken identity or a defensive response. Sharks typically do not prey on humans intentionally.

Sharks rely heavily on their senses, particularly their electroreception, which helps them detect the electrical signals produced by the muscles and gills of potential prey. In certain conditions, such as murky water or low visibility, a shark may mistake a surfer for a more typical prey item, like a seal or fish, due to the shape and size of the surfer on the surface of the water.

A school of sharks
Photo by Steve Woods

Additionally, surfers might unintentionally resemble injured or distressed marine animals, which can attract sharks. Splashing, rapid movements, and the silhouette of a person on a surfboard can trigger a shark's curiosity or defensive instincts.

It's important to note that sharks do not typically view humans as prey, and most shark encounters with humans do not result in an attack. The vast majority of sharks are not considered a significant threat to humans, and these incidents are relatively rare, given the millions of people who engage in water activities worldwide. Shark attacks are often isolated events, and efforts are made to understand these occurrences better to minimise risks and promote coexistence between humans and sharks.

As surfers navigate the waves and sharks, coexist in the vast ocean, bridging understanding between these two worlds becomes not just a challenge but a crucial step toward fostering harmony in marine environments.


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