Great White Kayak Attacks: the Where and When

By Paul Lebowitz

Counting last Friday’s two strikes off Vanderberg Air Force Base, great white sharks have attacked 17 California kayakers since 1989. Nine of the 17 were anglers.

There have been 17 great white shark on kayak attacks off California's coast, beginning in 1989. The pace of incidents has picked up dramatically since 2007. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

There have been 17 great white shark on kayak attacks off California’s coast, beginning in 1989. The pace of incidents has picked up dramatically since 2007. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

Let’s look at the locations and dates of each of these incidents (only one of which resulted in fatalities, and that was way back in 1989), and see what we learn.

First the timing. Great white sharks have attacked kayakers in every month of the year save February through April, when fewer kayakers are on the water. Nine of the past ten attacks involved anglers. Rockfish season is typically closed in Central and Northern California (home of the so-called Red Triangle) at the time.

Great white sharks have attacked kayakers in every month of the year save February through April, a time when fewer kayakers venture onto the water. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

Great white sharks have attacked kayakers in every month of the year save February through April, a time when fewer kayakers venture onto the water. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

Ralph Collier tracks shark attacks of all kinds for the Shark Research Committee. Kayakers represent roughly five percent of the total. Surfers and swimmers dominate the reports. His data show a decided surge in attacks from August through October, when the cool Pacific is at its most comfortable and more people are in and on the water.

Although attacks on surfers and swimmers decline in November, the apex predators are still around. Sean Van Sommeran of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation has conducted tagging studies on great whites in the Pigeon Point area. Van Sommeran says the sharks are at their greatest numbers from October to March.

How do attacks on kayakers compare? Although 17 attacks is a happily small sample size, the incidents are evenly distributed from mid-May all the way through late December. June and October are modest standouts, with three shark strikes each. Let’s move on to kayak attack locations.

Great white shark attacks on kayaks, 1989 to the present. They span the length of the coast. Photo credit Google Maps / INEGI Imagery.

Great white shark attacks on kayaks, 1989 to the present. They span the length of the coast. Photo credit Google Maps / INEGI Imagery.

If you look at the map above which shows all 17 kayak attacks, you might think it could happen anywhere. Great white tagger Van Sommeran would say you’re correct. “There are no boundaries. Great whites are seen in all areas of the coast," he says.

Whatcha gonna do? The odds of a great white attacking a kayaker of any stripe are low. They can happen anywhere along the California coast, and virtually any month (just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t). The only guarantee of avoiding an attack is staying high and dry, and what’s the fun in that?

Back to Van Summeran. He says kayakers can reduce their risks by avoiding marine mammal rookeries (seals are a main food source for mature great whites), fishing in groups (it didn’t work for Howell), and watching for skittish pinnipeds and birds that circle and vocalize, signs that a great white could be in the area.

Is there anything else we can say about the locations of the kayak attacks? Sure, but we have to zoom in. Only one kayaker on this list was reckless enough to venture into the immediate vicinity of a seal rookery near the peak of great white feeding time. That was Ken Kelton (not an angler), who was paddling just off the elephant seal rookery at Ano Nuevo in November 1992 when he was hit.

There are three recurring locations. Bean Hollow (July and August) and Leffingwell Landing (June and December) are on the list twice apiece. Vandenberg was the site of two attacks in a single day. Of these, Leffingwell and the greater San Simeon area see routine kayak fishing and paddling use, usually without trouble.

I think the risk assessment is best left to the individual kayak angler and should take into account other information, not just this list of kayak strikes. Seasonality is a consideration. If great white sharks are most abundant from October through March, you might want to stay farther away from the places seals congregate.

For Bean Hollow, based on the two attacks and the many white shark drive-bys and bumping incidents reported at NorCalKayakAnglers.com and whispered about among the locals, personally I’ll pass. The same for Vandenberg, where great white bites have killed two surfers and injured others in the years leading up to the recent twin bill kayak strike. Leffingwell is still on my go list (for now), but you won’t find me paddling up the coast six or seven miles to the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. How about you? What areas are in your personal “Nope, no-way” zone?

We’ll look at other shark avoidance and attack survival strategies in a future story.