Sharks are present across the world’s oceans, and known as apex predators in most categories, even if many of the world’s nearly 400 species aren’t particularly aggressive!
If you’re planning a beach vacation, looking to move permanently to a coastal destination, or simply curious about shark behavior and movement patterns, you’ve probably been wondering just how close to the shore sharks can come.
It’s a common question, and there are a number of factors at play that determine where you’re more or less likely to find sharks and how close to people they can get.
The biggest factor in how close sharks come to shore is simply the species. Different species of sharks thrive in different types of environments — including deep or shallow water. Some species like the bull shark can even thrive just fine in fresh water, and it has been spotted over a thousand miles from the ocean up the Mississippi River!
Generally, smaller sharks like sandbar sharks, sevengill sharks, and whaler sharks come closer to shore than large, open-water sharks like great whites and tiger sharks. But larger and more dangerous sharks can come close to shore under different circumstances.
Most shark attacks occur quite close to shore, but only because that’s where a majority of water-going people congregate.
Let’s take a look at how far from shore most shark attacks occur, types of sharks you’ll see in shallow vs deep water, and what factors can cause some sharks to be seen in areas they normally aren’t.
Types of sharks found in shallow water
As mentioned, how close a shark gets to shore is most influenced by what type of shark it is.
While encountering a shark at all is uncommon (and having a dangerous run-in is extremely rare), you’re most likely to find a shark close to shore if it’s a shark that spends a significant amount of time in shallow water.
While some of the world’s most famous sharks prefer deep, open water, there are friendly species that spend time in lagoons or along continental shelves.
Some of the most docile species found closer to the shore in shallow waters are hammerheads (depending on the species), thresher sharks, sandbar sharks, and leopard sharks.
A few others that are common along shelves but a little less friendly (read: respect them and treat them with caution) are nurse sharks, sevengill sharks, and whaler sharks.
Take a moment to research which sharks you should keep an eye out for in your region. While some should undoubtedly be treated with care, you may find that others are safe enough to swim with!
Types of sharks found in deep water
There are also sharks that spend most of their adult lives in deep water in the open ocean.
A lot of the sharks in this category are well-known, and not always for the best (read: safest) reasons.
Open water sharks are, on average, quite large — the three largest shark species are deep water sharks — and are also some of the world’s greatest predators.
While run-ins with these sharks aren’t impossible, most cases stem from swimmers, surfers, or divers who weren’t close to shore.
Occasionally, one of these adults will move in closer to shore (more on this behavior below), and in these cases it’s extremely important to heed officials and other warnings.
These sharks also breed closer to the coasts, meaning that during nursing season it’s not unheard of to spot juveniles in shallow water. Fortunately, mother sharks swim back out to deeper water shortly after giving birth and rarely pose a threat in shallow water.
Some of the world’s most famous (and dangerous) open water sharks are great whites and tiger sharks.
However, the world’s largest shark — the whale shark — is actually not considered a threat to people, since it is a filter feeder with a diet of almost entirely plankton (and small fish).
What is the shallowest water a shark can swim in?
Most sharks are relatively large marine animals. Over the 400 shark species around the world, the smallest dwarf sharks can be shorter than the human hand, and the largest (Whale Sharks) can reach up to 33 feet in length!
Understandably, the size of the animal influences not just its behavior and movement patterns, but it can also define and limit the physical space a shark can comfortably swim in.
The smaller the shark, the more comfortably it can swim in shallow water.
This is really important to take note of if you’re swimming and vacationing in an area that has somewhat aggressive midsize sharks, like bull sharks or blacktip sharks (which are usually timid around humans but are easily provoked to aggression).
Sharks of this size that already make a habitat of relatively shallow waters, like continental shelves or estuaries, can be perfectly comfortable for short times in water as shallow as five feet, meaning they can lurk quite close to beaches.
In some places, like Australia’s Gold Coast or Florida’s estuaries, this also means that sharks can sometimes be found in rivers and canals.
Fortunately, this size limitation means that you won’t be seeing any adult great whites or tiger sharks very close to shore, thanks to their massive size, though you’ll still want to be educated on them if you choose to swim or dive in deeper water.
When you might see deep water sharks in shallow water
There are two main cases when you might see a deep water shark in shallow water.
The first is juveniles.
Typically, infant animals have a low survival rate in the open sea. Because of this, the vast majority of the world’s shark species take to “nursery waters” like lagoons, estuaries, or other waters that are geographically protected to birth their young.
These areas are always close to shore, though not necessarily close to human recreation areas.
While mother sharks typically return to deep water shortly after giving birth, juvenile sharks will spend their early lives in safe water, usually until they’re reached a size large enough that they can prey within their species’ natural place within the food chain.
In the case of spotting a juvenile deep water shark, they’re often less dangerous than their adult counterparts, but still warrant some precautions.
The more problematic case of deep water sharks close to shore is for food.
Sometimes, adult or adolescent sharks will struggle to find food in their normal feeding area (for example, close to a shelf drop off and open water).
This can lead them to move closer to shore following a greater abundance of prey. Whether it’s a true deep water shark, or a midrange shark that may not even be uncommon in the region, this is almost always a dangerous situation.
There’s some evidence that heavy rains attract sharks close to shore because the rains stir up dead animals and fish populations.
If a shark that doesn’t normally frequent shallow waters is spotted here, it usually means it’s hungry — very hungry.
They can also be easily agitated, and less picky about what they dig their teeth into (though still unlikely to target a human specifically). Always follow officials’ guidance if this situation arises.
Where do most shark attacks take place? Shallow or deep water shark attacks?
The vast majority of dangerous shark encounters take place less than 100 feet from shore (source).
Because of this, the statistics indicate that shark attacks are most common in shallow water. However, shark attacks are not more common because of shallow water.
Rather, shark attacks are more common in shallow water because people are more common in shallow water.
More attacks take place within 100 feet of shore largely because that is where people are, regardless if the water itself is wadable, swimmable, or divable.
Often, these areas are also home to an abundance of many sharks’ prey, like fish or seals, which leads to higher numbers of sharks since they are looking for food.
The vast majority of ocean recreation occurs close to shore. 100 people closely packed near shark waters creates a non-zero chance of encounter, simply as a matter of statistics, while one diver in the open ocean has a near-zero chance of a dangerous encounter.
Regardless of where you are or what you’re doing, in shallow water or deep, your chances of experiencing a shark bite are extremely low.
There are several comparisons that get tossed around, all of which help demonstrate how rare shark attacks are, despite how such experiences can be portrayed in the media:
You’re more likely to get struck by lightning, die of the flu, sustain a fatal fall, or be injured by — get this — a toilet, than be hurt by a shark, even in a region where sharks frequent shallow waters.
So don’t fear! Follow basic shark safety guidelines like avoiding night swimming and making sure to always swim in groups, and you’ll likely have a shark-free vacation.
For more, check out:
Hope this helps!