Do Sharks Eat Humans? (Why they really, and rarely, attack…)

It’s probably safe to say that the idea of being eaten by a shark—or, really, any predatory animal—is a fairly universal fear.

That’s completely understandable, and surely hardwired to some extent, given humans evolved in a world shared with big, toothy creatures more than capable of preying on them—and some of which seemed especially disposed to do so.

As it happens, sharks don’t appear to be one of those creatures. In other words, sharks are not really known to eat humans.

That may come as a surprise, given these predatory fish—especially since the 1975 release of Jaws—may well top the list of the most-feared animals on Earth.

In this article, we’ll delve into this rather grisly subject—sharks eating people, or (more typically) not eating people—while emphasizing throughout the comforting knowledge that your odds of being attacked by a shark, let alone consumed, are exceedingly low.

Photo by Neil Turner / Flickr

While the tide may be turning, humans have paid far more attention to the overblown danger represented by sharks, and not enough to their essential role in marine ecosystems—or just how dire the overall conservation outlook is for many shark species, thanks to (what a surprise) us.

Putting Things Into Perspective – Basic Shark Encounter Statistics

Let’s underscore what’s going to a broken-record assertion in this article:

When the magnitude of people using the ocean in close proximity to sharks is considered, it’s clear sharks only rarely attack humans, and do so fatally even less commonly.

The International Shark Attack File guesses there are an average of perhaps 70 to 100 shark attacks each year worldwide, with five of these fatal. 

The majority of shark attacks on humans involve only a single bite: one reason, surely, why most are non-fatal.

You could make the argument that a large flesh-eating (as opposed to filter-feeding) shark, such as a great white or a tiger shark, is the most all-around impressive and well-armed big predator in the world.

Such a shark is more than capable of efficiently dismembering a person—even, in the case of the really big ones, swallowing one whole.

Yet this doesn’t happen very often at all.

Indeed, there are other large predators—especially certain big cats and crocodilians—that appear much more likely to actually target people as prey (and thus sometimes consume them).

A 15- or 20-foot-long great white shark could scarf down a person in quicker order than a Bengal tiger or a saltwater crocodile if it wanted to. Yet statistics suggest such a shark is simply less inclined to do so.

A recent BBC article cites the number of fatal tiger attacks, for instance, at 40-50 per year, and fatal elephant encounters even higher!

We’re going to dig into why that might be in greater detail, and it’s worth noting there’s much about sharks we don’t understand and that generalizing about their behavior can overlook the great variability of shark-human encounters.

But the simplest explanation is that humans just don’t fit the main prey image for sharks, even those big ones that regularly prey on animals as large or larger than we are.

Shark Attacks vs Shark Bites

2013 paper published in The Journal of Environmental Studies & Science persuasively advocated for avoiding the easily sensationalized term “shark attack” when describing most shark-human run-ins.

The authors suggested this label be reserved for those more intense incidents in which the shark’s behavior could most likely be described as intentionally predatory—often difficult to ascertain—and that the vast majority of incidents would better be described as “shark encounters” and “shark bites.”

It’s a solid proposal, given the price sharks have paid for being painted by media and popular culture as bloodthirsty monsters, and given many instances of physical contact between sharks and people don’t really justify the word “attack.”

For example, most shark-inflicted injuries in Florida—which leads the U.S. and the world in confirmed unprovoked shark “attacks”—are minor, best described as single nips or chomps by relatively small sharks (especially blacktips) that almost assuredly are biting because they confuse a swimmer’s hand or foot in murky nearshore waters with their normal prey of schooling fish.

And if a shark bites a surfboard or paddleboard without actually contacting the person atop the board—and then swims off, as is usually the case—is that really an attack?

Given in this article we’re focused on the most serious shark bites—ones that could involve a person being partly or wholly eaten—and, admittedly, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with the conventional label of “shark attack.”

But it’s definitely worth reflecting on the idea that our terminology can alter people’s perceptions of the risk posed by sharks and other animals, and surely “attack”—connoting as it does a violent encounter that implies a clear predatory/murderous impulse on the part of the shark—is too extreme a word for most cases where a shark injures a person.

Sharks Eating Humans – Does It Ever Happen?

It’s impossible to say how many humans have actually been consumed by sharks. There are all kinds of factors at play that complicate making an accurate assessment of the phenomenon.

Even today, for example, shark attacks may go unreported, especially in developing or remote parts of the world.

Sharks may be blamed for a person who goes missing at sea, even if no eyewitnesses were involved.

In turn, it’s possible that at least some deaths or disappearances attributed, say, to drowning were actually due to a shark attack that lacked eyewitnesses.

In many of the rare fatal shark attacks that are officially confirmed, the body of the victim is only partly recovered or—as was the case with the white-shark attack on spearfisher Sam Kellett off South Australia’s Goldsmith Beach in 2014 or the attack by what was likely a tiger shark on a snorkeler off Maui’s Keawakapu Beach in late 2022—not recovered at all.

Whether this means the offending shark consumed all of part of the person or not isn’t clear; body parts might sink to the bottom (though the aerated lung tissue of shark-attack victims will float and may be the only remains recovered) or be eaten by marine scavengers.

And speaking of, it’s also very much worth emphasizing that the presence of human remains in the stomach of a shark may represent a case of scavenging and not predation.

Species such as bull and tiger sharks have been documented feeding on the bodies of people who died from drowning and other non-shark causes.

This shows that sharks will certainly feed on people if given the chance; it doesn’t imply they will actively attack us in order to do so.

Types of Sharks Capable of Preying on People

There are better than 500 species of sharks in the world, and only a fraction have ever been implicated in attacks on humans.

The idea of an average shark even considering a person as a prey item is pretty laughable. Half of all shark species max out at three feet long or less, and even most larger sharks tend to prey on creatures (such as baitfish and squid) far smaller than a human being.

A relative handful of sharks are large and powerful enough—and target big-enough prey—to conceivably pose a predatory threat to a human being.

These include, most notably, various members of the carcharhinid or requiem-shark family—from silvertip, Galapagos, and dusky sharks

… to the notorious bull and tiger sharks—and certain lamnids or mackerel sharks, including the great white shark and the shortfin and longfin makos.

Several other medium- to large-sized sharks known to hunt marine mammals, including the broadnose sevengill shark, bluntnose sixgill shark, Greenland shark, Pacific sleeper shark, and southern sleeper shark, are certainly hypothetically capable of consuming a human being.

So is the great hammerhead shark, which may reach 20 feet or so, though its favored prey appears to be rays and smaller sharks.

Many of the sharks alluded to above, despite being big and formidable enough to potentially view humans as prey, account for very few documented attacks.

(At least part of the explanation for a number of those species—including such predominantly deepwater types as the sleeper sharks and such mainly pelagic sharks as makos—is likely that their preferred habitat hardly ever sees them sharing waters with people.)

[Read more on how close sharks like to come to shore here.)

The “Big Three” species when it comes to the number of confirmed unprovoked attacks on people are the great white shark, the tiger shark, and the bull shark.

A fourth species, the oceanic whitetip shark, another carcharhinid, has often been pegged as another of the most potentially dangerous sharks, partly because of a reputation for attacking shipwreck survivors in the open ocean.

For the rest of this article, we’ll mainly be focusing on the Big Three, given they’re responsible for the most confirmed attacks on people by a healthy margin and are perhaps likeliest to attack from predatory motivation (even if “likeliest” is definitely relative).

The History of “Man-Eaters”

By – Own work, Public Domain

Despite the rarity of shark attacks in general and consumption of human beings by sharks in particular, plenty of historical references connect these magnificent ocean predators with eating people, as the aforementioned 2013 Journal of Environmental Studies & Sciences paper summarizes. 

One of many long-used nicknames for the great white shark is simply “man-eater.”

In his influential 1758 description of this species, the taxonomist Carl Linnaeus postulated that the white shark, and not a whale, may have been the sea beast that swallowed Jonah in the Biblical story.

The Hawaiian term niuhi translates roughly as “man-eating shark” and is most commonly connected to the tiger shark, though it could also be applied to white sharks and indeed any good-sized, potentially dangerous shark.

Similarly, the word parata in French Polynesia means something like “a large shark capable of devouring a man,” and is typically associated with tiger sharks and oceanic whitetips.

Why & How Big Sharks Bite (and How People Might End Up Eaten)

Much research (and much speculation) has focused on the motivation behind shark attacks and bites, not least when the Big Three are concerned.

Attacks that involve some form of predatory motivation—that is, when a shark is viewing, at least initially, a human being as a possible prey item—are those that could result in part or all of a person being consumed.

There are other likely reasons why sharks sometimes bite people, including a defensive reaction when the shark is feeling threatened, or a territorial response by a feeding shark (considered a probable explanation for at least some shark attacks on boats).

Mistaken Identity Hypothesis vs. Opportunistic Behavior

Authorities have often postulated that many shark attacks result from some version of mistaken identity: a shark confusing a person for more typical prey.

The frequency with which bull sharks, for example, hunt in murky inshore waters may explain some of their attacks on people, whose appendages might be mistaken for a fish in such low-visibility conditions.

And the idea that great white sharks mostly attack swimmers and surfers because their silhouettes are easily mistaken for a seal or sea lion lolling at the surface has been a prominent one for decades.

This mistaken-identity hypothesis is not without critics, however, and even if true in some cases or to some degree is unlikely to explain all shark attacks.

Some argue that the hypothesis does something of a disservice to the sensory abilities of sharks, and suggest that the attacks are more likely expressions of a shark’s opportunistic tendency to explore potential prey items.

In other words, a white shark biting a surfer may not be mistaking the person for a sea lion, but instead simply investigating whether he or she is worth eating.

If this is the motivation, the statistics suggest the shark usually doesn’t deem a person good to eat.

For example, it’s possible a white shark ascertains through the feel of a human in its jaws that this animal lacks the thick, nutritious, and maybe downright tasty blubber of a pinniped or cetacean, and thus isn’t high-value food.

White-Shark Attacks on Pinnipeds vs. People

Some support for this notion of sharks biting out of investigation rather than because of mistaken identity comes from comparing great-white attacks on pinnipeds vs. humans (such as surfers).

White sharks attacking seals or sea lions at the surface typically strike with sudden, explosive force from below, the momentum sometimes even causing them to breach out of the water.

Many bites to surfers or their boards, meanwhile, are less violent or explosive, which might imply that the white shark in these cases isn’t necessarily confusing a surfer for a pinniped, but testing for edibility.

Some evidence also suggests that white sharks employ a greater bite force when attacking pinnipeds as compared to humans, “which could indicate that bites on humans are more exploratory or tempered,” in the words of a 2021 paper investigating the mistaken-identity theory.

Serious Attacks by White Sharks

It is, of course, worth noting that some people unfortunately do find themselves on the receiving end of a more explosive white-shark attack.

A recent case in point was the high-profile fatal white-shark attack on a swimmer in the Sydney area’s Little Bay in 2022.

Given how quickly and easily a white shark in full-on hunting mode could kill (and even eat) a human being, we can be all the more thankful that, for whatever reason, this happens so very, very rarely.

Interviewed by the BBC, Greg Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries biologist who’s tagged white sharks off the U.S. East Coast, noted that great whites are often quite calm in these encounters, but sometimes the sharks respond completely differently, immediately attacking poles or cameras.

He suggested this response might reflect some kind of hyped-up predatory mode, and that such a shark might be more likely to attack a person with more energetic intent.

“I wonder if those strikes on people that are not merely investigative are the results of a person being in the wrong place and the wrong time with a shark in this kind of heightened state,” Skomal told the BBC.

The Bite-&-Spit Strategy of Great Whites

There’s another phenomenon that may be at play in great-white attacks on humans.

While it’s possible that white sharks usually reject humans as prey after an initial bite (whether exploratory or otherwise), that bite might also represent the first step in a predatory process that’s often interrupted or aborted.

White sharks often employ a “bite-and-spit” method when attacking pinnipeds, delivering a single bite and then retreating awhile before returning to feed on the weakened or dead animal after it’s bled out.

Researchers suspect sharks might pursue this strategy to minimize their own risk of injury.

After all, a struggling elephant seal or sea lion could, for example, do some damage to a shark’s eye or other vulnerable area.

By delivering an ambush-style surprise bite, then pulling back, the shark steers clear of its victim’s claws and teeth and lets blood loss do most of the work in subduing the creature.

It may be the case that white sharks sometimes are following this strategy when attacking swimmers or surfers, and that the bitten victim is often rescued or removed from the water before the shark returns.

Still Learning the Ropes: Attacks by Young White Sharks

Some research suggests that certain apparently predatorily motivated attacks on humans by white sharks might also result from young sharks honing their hunting skills (and perhaps refining their prey search image), as was speculated in a fatal 2009 attack on a surfer in New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

(Read how we can help Great White Sharks here.)

Potentially Predatory Tiger-Shark Attacks

By Albert kok – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

More aggressive and/or sustained shark attacks by other species, including those that involve some consumption of a body part, may indicate a predatory motivation.

These describe at least some attacks by the tiger shark, well known for its generalist diet and ability to tackle such large prey as sea turtles, seals, and cetaceans.

In late 2021, for example, a pearl-farm worker snorkeling in the Rikitea Lagoon of French Polynesia was approached boldly by a tiger shark that then attacked him, biting off and swallowing his foot in the process before he was rescued.

A paper in the journal Clinical Case Reports concluded, “The predatory motivation for the Rikitea bite is clearly indicated by (i) the attempted surprise attack, (ii) the lack of preceding agonistic behavior, and (iii) the removal and consumption of the lower leg. The victim survived primarily because of the close presence of the boat and a companion, and the effective first‐aid treatment (tourniquets) applied by his companion.”

It goes without saying all of this pays up the importance of the tried-and-true “buddy system” when it comes to entering the ocean.

We can probably safely postulate that more people would be consumed by sharks if so many victims weren’t the beneficiaries of swift aid by rescuers. Certainly the fatality rate would be higher, as the ISAF suggests it was in the past.

Wrapping Up

The fact that sharks so rarely eat people is, to state the obvious, a comforting one.

Your chances of being attacked by a shark in any way are low enough as it is, and made lower by following common-sense practices (such as avoiding swimming at night or at dusk).

And even if you are, the nature of the attack is far more likely to be one of those minor bites than a serious predatory strike.

When they happen, such strikes can be devastating and sometimes tragic.

But your odds of dying from a shark attack are, according to the ISAF, something like 1 in 4.3 million, hugely lower than from such unexpected threats as fireworks, train crashes, bicycle accidents, and accidental poisoning.

Sharks deserve our respect and appreciation, given how much they contribute to the maintenance of the ocean’s ecological balance.

We ought to be much more concerned with the plunge in global shark populations, and what it might foretell about long-term marine trends, than about being eaten!