There aren’t many creatures that so seize—and terrify—the imagination as sharks.
These ancient cartilaginous fish, which have done their toothy thing in the World Ocean for hundreds of millions of years, certainly rank among the planet’s preeminent predators, though the majority of species are actually on the small end of the size spectrum.
But one glance at the jagged maw and streamlined form of a big requiem, mackerel, or hammerhead shark, and it’s clear these magnificent aquatic beasts are refined for hunting as few other animals are.
That said, the risk sharks pose to human beings is vastly overblown.
Most bites seem to be cases of mistaken identity—when a shark confuses us with its normal prey—or self-defense on the part of a shark perceiving itself to be threatened.
It is, of course, worth paying attention to the patterns of shark attacks on humans nonetheless. Especially if you plan on visiting the beach any time soon!
Always, though, we need to keep in context the fact that we’re intruding upon sharks’ domain—and that sharks, thanks to the overfishing, pollution, climate change, and other anthropogenic factors that have caused the populations of many species to precipitously plummet (even to the real risk of extinction), have much more to fear from humanity than the other way around.
In this article, we’ll assess which coastal states in the U.S.—the global leader in unprovoked shark bites—experience the most and the least shark attacks.
Here’s a helpful chart showing shark attacks by state in the U.S.
|Most Shark Attacks Since 1837||Least Shark Attacks|
|Florida (896)||Washington, Rhode Island, Maine (2)|
|Hawaii (182)||Connecticut (1)|
|California (132)||Alaska (0)|
The point is not to fearmonger: Sharks have suffered enough from a hyperbolic and undeserved reputation for bloodthirstiness.
But sharks do pose a risk, and understanding where and why we end up on the receiving end of their jaws (to whatever degree) can help us avoid such run-ins—and therefore support a healthier, more peaceable relationship with this ultimate marine predator.
U.S. Shark Attacks in a Global Context
The U.S. sees the highest number of unprovoked shark bites each year of anyplace in the world.
That’s according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) based at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the leading scientific database on global shark attacks.
From 2012 to 2021, the ISAF gives the U.S. a total shark-attack tally of 471.
Australia, the perennial runner-up in this category, reported 113 confirmed attacks over the same period.
There are a couple of things to note about these figures.
First, the U.S.’s high number of annual shark bites is not all that surprising when the size of the country and the length of its seacoast are considered alongside the sheer number of people taking to American waters each year.
Second, one corner of the U.S. accounts for a staggering majority of its shark bites: namely, the Sunshine State.
In that 2012-2021 period, 259 shark attacks were reported from Florida, which accounts for more than half of the national total (and is more than twice the count from Down Under). We’ll shortly dig deeper into Florida’s impressive shark-attack statistics.
Finally, while Australia—with a far lower population than the U.S., mind you—typically falls firmly into second place in terms of total annual shark attacks, it usually leads the world in fatal attacks.
The U.S. saw eight deadly shark attacks between 2012 and 2021 according to the ISAF, while Australia experienced 11.
U.S. States With the Most & the Least Recorded Shark Attacks
The following breakdowns are based on ISAF stats, though they pull from other data sources as well to flesh out the picture.
We’re ranking the states at both the top and bottom ends by ISAF shark-attack totals from 1837 to the present.
Basically, as long as anyone has been keeping track!
Here and there, however, we’ll reference some alleged shark attacks that may not be recognized by the ISAF.
It hopefully goes without saying, but we’re naturally not including landlocked states in this analysis. Kansas, as it turns out, is not any kind of epicenter for shark attacks.
Top Three U.S. States With the Most Shark Attacks
1. Florida (896)
No place in the world logs more officially documented shark bites than Florida. When you consider the factors, though, this distinction isn’t altogether surprising.
For one thing, Florida’s subtropical-to-tropical climate and a seashore stretching more than 1,200 miles—the second-longest oceanfront of any state except for Alaska—draws a huge number of beachgoers every year.
From full-time to seasonal Florida residents to vacationers from all over the globe, there’s an awful lot of people getting in the Sunshine State’s waters.
Second, Florida has an abundant and diverse roster of coastal sharks.
In particular, several requiem sharks—members of the Family Carcharhinidae, which includes many species of good-sized, highly active coastal and pelagic predatory sharks—are very common in nearshore waters.
The species to which experts attribute the bulk of Florida’s bites is the blacktip, a modest-sized (usually about four to six feet long) shark that avidly pursues baitfish—and avoids the larger sharks that’ll snack on it—close to shore.
Most of the shark “attacks” seen in Florida are blacktips or other smallish sharks simply nipping swimmers, likely mistaking their hands or feet for a fish. That’s especially likely in murky waters. Such bites are rarely serious.
Fatal shark attacks are very uncommon in Florida, with only a few dozen recorded in the state’s history.
These are more likely to be the work of larger, more powerful species, particularly bull and tiger sharks.
The majority of the most recent fatal attacks in Florida—including on a kiteboarder off Stuart in 2010, a boogieboarder off Destin in 2005, a swimmer near Tampa in 2000, and a scuba diver on Alligator Reef in 1995—have been pegged on the bull shark, a stocky, thick-jawed, rather pugnacious requiem shark common in coastal and inshore waters.
A tiger shark, meanwhile, is thought to have been responsible for a 1998 fatal attack on a swimmer off Vero Beach.
2. Hawaii (182)
The Hawaiian Islands—the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world—are a global shark hotspot in terms of species diversity and abundance.
These great predators are major cultural touchstones to Native Hawaiians, playing prominent roles in indigenous mythology.
Hawaii’s invitingly tropical climate and internationally renowned beaches and surf breaks, coupled with a number of large, reasonably common shark species, explain its number-two status in the U.S. shark-attack tally.
Surfers account for the most shark-attack victims in the state.
Potentially dangerous sharks in Hawaii include oceanic whitetips, Galapagos sharks, and great whites.
(White sharks appear to be regular visitors to the islands, though they’re infrequently seen close to popular beaches; in 2021, a 10- to 11-foot great white attacked a kayak off Ukumehame in Maui, though the paddlers were not injured.)
But by far the most significant species in this regard is the tiger shark, top dog of the archipelago’s nearshore realm.
Tiger sharks in Hawaii prey on monk seals, sea turtles, rays, other sharks, and a host of other sealife, and likely attack people mostly when confusing swimmers and surfers for such fare.
Given their size (maxing out between 18 and 20 feet) and extremely formidable mouthparts, though, tigers can inflict serious damage even with just a single bite, even if it’s delivered by mistake.
By a significant margin, Maui sees the most shark attacks of any of the Hawaiian Islands.
Since 1828, it’s recorded 71 attacks, compared to Oahu’s 42, Kaui’s 31, the Big Island’s 25, and Molokai’s two. (There have been a handful of other Hawaiian shark attacks in offshore waters or the outer islands.)
As this 2021 Maui News explains, South and West Maui appear to offer especially rich habitat for tiger sharks, and the area where surveys detect the most tigers throughout the year—Makena Point—has also seen a number of fatal shark attacks over the past decade.
Speaking of fatal shark attacks, Hawaii has documented more than any other state, most of these probably from tiger sharks.
The State of Hawaii notes that October, November, and December appear to see the highest rate of attacks, a seasonal phenomenon apparently noted by Native Hawaiians and borne out by statistics.
But shark attacks, even non-fatal bites, remain extremely rare in Hawaii, despite all the surfers and swimmers in the water throughout the year and the significant population of tiger sharks.
The aforementioned Maui News article quotes University of Hawaii at Manoa shark researcher Kim Holland on this point: “The amazing thing to me is not how many shark attacks there are in Hawaii, it’s how few shark attacks there are in Hawaii.”
(Interestingly, a very small shark called the cookiecutter shark has been blamed for a number of non-fatal attacks in Hawaii, including one off the Big Island in February 2022. This big-eyed shark, usually just two or three feet long, has an unusual predatory method: It corkscrews out chunks of flesh from big prey such as whales and dolphins.)
3. California (132)
Since 1900, California ranks second behind Hawaii among states in terms of fatal shark attacks.
Hawaii’s primary culprit is the tiger shark; California’s is the great white.
The Golden State is home to one of the planet’s most notable population of white sharks, and this mighty creature—most massive of the predatory sharks, capable of reaching 20 feet or more in length and several tons in weight—is responsible for the vast majority of attacks here.
Surfers and abalone divers are particularly at risk, experts long surmising that their surface silhouettes and their dark wetsuits make them unnervingly similar-looking to the sea lions and seals (pinnipeds) California white sharks target.
Hunting such prey, white sharks commonly employ a “bite-and-spit” technique in which they deliver a catastrophic chomp, then pull back to allow the animal to bleed out, thus minimizing the risk of a defensive injury.
This behavior seems to link up with many great-white attacks on people, involving a sudden, devastating strike that—given the size, power, and massive teeth and jaws of the white shark—may be fatal even if it’s not followed up.
Recent fatal attacks in California include a bodyboarder killed by a great white in Morro Bay in December 2021 and a surfer killed by the same species off Santa Cruz County’s Sand Dollar Beach in May 2020.
Well-known marine biologist John McCosker of the California Academy of Sciences suggests that attacks by white sharks in the state are “not random.”
He writes, “The Farallon Islands, Ano Nuevo Island (San Mateo County), and Tomales Point and Bird Rock (Marin County) are particularly dangerous locations and should be avoided.”
These spots include important pinniped rookeries and haul-outs, which accordingly draw hunting great whites.
As everywhere else, however, California experiences far fewer shark attacks (an average of about 1.8 per year) than would be expected if great whites were regularly perceiving surfers, divers, and swimmers as a food source.
(Learn about the types of sharks you’ll find in Malibu here.)
U.S. States With the Least Shark Attacks
For this opposite end of the spectrum, we’ll “count down” the coastal states with the lowest number of recorded shark attacks, according to ISAF data.
3. Washington, Rhode Island, Maine, and Maryland (2)
These four states all have, as of this writing, recorded only two ISAF-documented shark attacks.
But a few additional, alleged attacks have been linked to some of these states.
For example, in addition to non-fatal attacks in 1989 and 2017, Washington State—host to such large sharks as great whites, salmon sharks, and sevengills—may have seen a shark bite back in the 1830s.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of 19th-century reports of fatal shark attacks from Rhode Island (Bristol Harbor in 1816 and Noyes Beach in 1895), but well-documented attacks in the past century—both non-fatal—only include a 1955 incident wherein a 13-year-old boy was bitten by a small shark in Pawtuxet Cove and a 2019 case involving a sand tiger shark (identified by the ISAF via a tooth fragment) biting the foot of a teenage surfer off Moonstone Beach.
Maryland’s only recent shark attack occurred in 2021, when a 12-year-old girl swimming at Ocean City received a minor bite. In 1906, the remains of a man who fell overboard in Tangier Sound were recovered almost bitten in two by what was reckoned to be a shark.
A Washington Post article reporting on the incident at the time suggested “it is now supposed that as soon as he fell into the water he was grabbed by the shark.”
In Maine, a shark circled a scuba diver in Burnt Cove in October 2010 and bit his camera, though the man received no injuries. A 63-year-old woman suffered a much worse fate in July 2020: Swimming with her daughter off Bailey Island, she was killed by a great white shark in the state’s first recorded shark-related fatality.
2. Connecticut (1)
Although there are alleged shark-bite reports in Connecticut from the 19th century, the Constitution State’s only confirmed attack comes from 1933, when a swimmer in the Mystic River was bitten on the foot.
White sharks have definitely increased their presence in New England waters in recent years, a resurgence thought to tie in with the recovery of grey-seal populations in these North Atlantic waters.
In 2019, a great white being tracked by the group OCEARCH pinged in Long Island Sound off Greenwich, Connecticut.
1. Alaska (0)
Alaska’s got the longest seaboard of any U.S. state: Its estimated tidal shoreline is roughly 47,000 miles.
It also certainly offers marine habitat for sharks—the great white (at least occasionally) included, not to mention salmon sharks, spiny dogfish, sixgills, and the sometimes-huge deepwater Pacific sleeper shark.
But no shark attacks have officially been documented in the Last Frontier.
You can learn a lot more about shark attacks on a year-by-year basis—and put the overall miniscule risk of these events in perspective—over at the ISAF’s website.
You can also explore the Global Shark Attack File. Meanwhile, learn more about OCEARCH’s super-exciting shark tracking research here and bone up on shark conservation with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
And remember the major take-home point:
Sharks are incredibly vital players in the oceanic ecosystems, and worthy not of misplaced fear but deep respect—and the full force of our conservation efforts.
For more, check out:
Hope this helps!