We're excited to announce a new Club of the Waves! View the new site

The shark debate

Sharks, surfers & photographers

Regardless of your feelings on sharks, there is always a looming threat (depending on where you are). Whether it is real danger or paranoia… So we got to wondering about how surfers, and in particular, surf photographers feel about sharks… After all, they do work and play in their domain! Sightings and even encounters are not unheard of, as many of the featured photographers on this site can testify to…

We all have our own feelings on sharks. They terrify some, others respect them, others hunt and kill them, and others just pray they never meet one! The movie industry paints them out to be savage and intelligent beings that prey on humans. But studies have proven otherwise, as do the statistics (more information on sharks and shark attack statistics). If you look at how many shark attacks there actually are, you'd probably be surprised… but that won't come as much comfort to the loved one's of those unfortunate few surfers & swimmers that have had their lives claimed by a shark…

We asked some of the best surf photographers (and artists) in the world about their experience with, and feelings on sharks…

David Pu'u

I have swum with 17 great whites, multiple tigers and several blues. They are predators. They are attracted to the charge on the battery in the camera, which they can detect from over 10 miles away. I have been bumped several times and avoided what I was told was a predation one time by staring a great white down (a technique taught to me by Archie Kalepa).

The wildest encounter was when I was filming 35mm motion just after dawn with a big gold housing that Greg Huglin used to film whites in South Africa. A big one buzzed me, he moved so much water that he managed to spin me and my 60 pound rig like a top. When I was dropping the gear off at Greg's house later he showed me footage of a great white eating the housing and then disgorging it (goes in reveres as he lets go of the lens port). Then Greg showed me the teeth marks/gouges on the housing I had been using and explained that it was anodised that colour because they thought it would attract great whites. The footage he showed me was nauseating.

He said that next time I have an encounter I had better f*ing get out of the water. I sometimes think that maybe I am getting too casual about the boys.

Russell Ord

As a surf photographer and one that shoots from the water, sharks will pop into my mind once in a while, but it really depends on what location I happen to be shooting at. Around the Margaret River region [Western Australia] it would cross my mind very rarely, and is a place I feel comfortable at. The times I have thought twice about getting the flippers on is when surfer Brad Smith was taken a few years ago, and when a great white has been hanging around the local breaks.

The further south I travel the more the great whites are renowned, but in reality the odds are in my favour, even though I will be the only one hanging the legs down and swimming in the lineup. On a trip up north I had a shark (not sure what type it was and was only roughly a five footer at the most) circle me a few times so I called it a day, but I still felt comfortable that it was not a threat and went back out when it swam off.

The real scare I had was when I actually put the camera away and was having a surf at a remote north-west spot with a few mates… I happen to be sitting out the back when I noticed what appeared to be something with a head as large as a small car with two small waves rolling off the front of it. At this stage of the story I would like to say that I stared it down and I was going to punch it in the nose and face it… but what really happened was totally different. When I noticed it was a huge shark I just turned my back, put my legs up and barely made a splash, much the same reaction as when you are about three years old and pull the blankets over your head when you hear a noise outside. The shark… and I had to be told this from my mates, just stopped dead five meters short of me and turned left into the face of the on-coming wave - the 15-20 foot plus tiger shark must have had second thoughts, which I am glad for to this day. When the three of us were back on shore we only managed to giggle like three little girls on the encounter, tough aren't we.

Lucia Griggi

I guess what you don't knows there wont hurt YOU! …I think you're always thinking about it in the back of your mind! Swimming around I guess you're exposed. I can always sense if I'm not alone, there have been times I have felt uncomfortable in the water, and I get out when I do. Sometimes I'm not fortunate enough and I have to wait for a boat, so I panic a little when it gets dark!!!

Rod Owen

I actually yesterday saw the movie "Sharkwater". This for me was a real eye opener. The way that human beings treat and abuse sharks and other life in the ocean is a f*ing joke. Simply catching 200 million sharks a year, for their fins, then sending them back to the bottom of the ocean alive to drown nearly made me sick. And to hear that soda pop or cola dispensers fall over and kill more people than sharks a year, is the kind of fact that really shows how unlucky you must be to be attacked.

Anyway… We were shooting in the water near Sydney a few weeks ago, when a baby dolphin popped up with a large gash (see photo) out of its top left side. Obviously this sent a cold shiver down mine, and all the other boys' spines, but we continued to surf/shoot etc. This wasn't the first case either, having been checked out by sharks several times before, even swimming straight underneath us, but with no harm intended (I think).

I know everybody is afraid of sharks, but if cola machines are killing more people a year than sharks, what are we worried about? Its a sharks territory, it has been for 400 million years apparently, so as surfers and surf photographers we must swim and hang out with them, then I guess once in a while a very unlucky few of us will be taste tested…

Elizabeth Pepin

I find that whenever you tell someone you surf, one of the first things they ask you is, "aren't you afraid of sharks?" I usually give them a flippant answer like "I'm more worried about getting killed by a Muni Bus (our San Francisco bus line is notorious for hitting pedestrians) than I am of getting bit by a shark." Which is true -- to a point. I live and surf in San Francisco, an area known as the 'Red Triangle'; one of the largest concentrations of great white sharks in the world. Surfing in an area known for its sharks, it's difficult not to think about them sometimes, but strangely it's always while I'm surfing, and never when I'm swimming with my water housing taking photos -- when I'm supposedly more vulnerable. Maybe because there is so much more to think about when I am shooting photos, or maybe if I really thought about it I'd never swim out there again!

In my 22 years of surfing and 12 years of shooting surf with my water housing, I have only seen sharks twice -- both times surfing, not shooting. The first time was a tiger shark along the Kona Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii, and the 2nd was a great white at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I had always wondered how I would react if I saw a shark, and much to my surprise, after taking a few seconds to really absorb what I was seeing, I kept very calm and focused, paddling fast and shallow back to the beach. The same could not be said of my fellow surfers in Hawaii, two tourists on foam boards and white t-shirts, who flailed about and screamed for me and two other more seasoned surfers not to leave them behind. Luckily the tiger shark was more focused on the large fish that were swimming by because their movements were probably about the worst thing you could do!

I continue to surf and shoot in both places where I've seen the shark, and try to just not think about it too much. I still worry more about that Muni bus!

Peter Pierce

I love sharks! This winter I had one of the closest encounters with a very large tiger, and it was quite a graceful, beautiful moment! He (she) cruised very slowly right next to the take-off at my local break. Kind of like when a whale passes near. My one friend, Jake, was surfing the peak a few feet from the shark. He turned and caught the white water straight in with a spooked look on his face. I don't blame him. There was only one other guy out and we were about 150+ yards offshore.

Where I surf, the water is crystal clear… visibility of 100+ feet is not uncommon. The clear conditions are not good for the tiger's hunting strategy. They like to ambush in murky waters. The original Hawaiian name for my local break I am told translates to 'shark point'. Every year we see at least one large tiger out in the line-up. I know there are many.

Point is if these tigers really wanted, they would have munched any one of us locals long ago. From my last encounter, I came to realize, they aren't around our break looking for humans to eat. As long as the water is clear, and not too choppy, I feel totally comfortable surfing a reef that is so far from shore. It is just something you have to deal with at our break… often, it can be good with nobody around.

With all that said, I still find times when I am out alone, the surf is pumping, and I am a little eager to be back on shore.

Jeffrey Hemming

Aloha from tiger shark land… Interesting debate about our marine counterparts, I grew up surfing Norcal, Half Moon Bay to Monterey, and sharks were always on my mind, never had an encounter though, I had times where I'd paddle out and there would be others in the water that had seen one the day before, or I'd hear about a sighting the day after in the same spot.

I moved to Oahu in '96 and still have yet to see a bona-fide shark sighting in the water. I've lived on the north shore and have either surfed or at least swam in the water almost every day, I've seen shadows, fins, seen the weird "things" that pop up in the water, but never an identifiable shark. I'm always thinking about it though, and there have been some attacks out here too but unless I'm surfing an outer reef misto spot alone at sundown, I usually don't get too freaked out. More people in the water help too. Even when there's been a spook or someone says they've seen one, I've never paddled in. Surfing alone however, is a different story; in that case I usually freak myself out and paddle in a few waves later.

My wife is nuts for sharks, we own almost every shark video made, all the shark weeks, shark island, air sharks part one, two and three… the list goes on. I have to say that after learning more about them I really feel more safe in the water, and I know what kind of water and conditions to avoid. Still a scary thought though when it comes right down to it.

Ian Haight

We accessed this wave by one jet ski with five men total (two trips). Anchoring the ski was an ordeal and we left it about 300 yards out. The surf was savage at 6-8 foot Hawaiian with no light duty- a big heaving long hollow left. Things were going well. I was paddling back out to the main zone, 3rd in line. There was a bump coming in so I looked past my friend Hana and Roland to see how big of a set was coming in…

Much to my horror, I saw the largest orca sized fish surfacing right where we launch. I was 3rd in line but clearly saw how big this beast was. I asked Hana (our driver) if it was an orca? The dorsal was at least 2.5 feet out of the water. Roland was closest and was booing towards us at a high speed bumbling that is was a white, grey colour like he has never seen. Just from my view, I easily saw the definitive conical shape of the head. That beasty was surely a great white shark.

He had come in, cruised through our takeoff zone and disappeared. Joe G. had already launched onto the deadly shoreline 300 yards away and he didn't even see it! I have never seen anyone cover so much ground. I asked Hana to go get the ski and he said #@%&*!@ you. I then asked all why don't we just stay out? @#$!^%& you Ian from all. We all paddled out to the ski, packed in and Hana had to come back and pluck Joe off the rocks.

Really exciting day as the waves were sick and the true local showed up. Obviously "Whitey" was not very hungry but to see one of those was rare in these waters.

For more information on sharks, shark attack statistics and a few other links we found, below is a list of web links you may find interesting…


Information on sharks on Wikipedia.

International Shark Attack File

The International Shark Attack File is a compilation of all known shark attacks… Well worth exploring as there is lots of interesting info and stats on there.

Australian Shark Attack File

The Australian Shark Attack File chronicles all known information on shark attacks from Australian waters. It also educates the publc and raises awareness.

Shark Research Institute

Shark Research Institute (SRI), a multi-disciplinary non-profit scientific research organization, was created to sponsor and conduct research on sharks and promote the conservation of sharks.

Shark Trust

Established in 1997, the Shark Trust is the UK registered marine charity dedicated to promoting the study, management and conservation of sharks, skates, rays (elasmobranchs) and chimaera.

Bookmark and Share COTW / 2008