THE best deal, five-star accommodation and a glorious beach are all good reason to consider when choosing a holiday destination, but do you ever think about the shark factor?
The Florida Museum of Natural History, along with the American Elasmobranch Society, administers the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), has created a list of some of the most shark-infested beaches of the world.
It makes sense that the ISAF is hosted in Florida. The "Sunshine State" and one of its beaches – New Smyrna, on the central east coast –' holds the dubious honour of being the shark-attack capital of the world. But even this fact tells us something else about the relativity of shark-attack data (for example, a lot of people are in the water in Florida).
Volusia County's New Smyrna is one of those fine coastal destinations for which Florida is famous. Surrounded on all sides by water – the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway, Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River – and boasting excellent subtropical weather (warm and comfortable summers plus warm and comfortable winters), the laid-back seaside community attracts a high density of visitors: surfers, anglers, swimmers and tourists.
New Smyrna's well-surfed, sub-tropical waters are also ideal for sharks – tigers, blacktips, spinners and many others. A high density of sharks and a high density of people ... you begin to understand the problem.
Conventional wisdom has it that those last two, blacktip and spinner sharks, especially youngsters, are the cause of most incidents in New Smyrna's waters. There are indeed shark-related fatalities, but most encounters are simply cases of mistaken identity (a hungry, disoriented shark nips an unwitting tourist – so many to choose from) and the results, if not minor, certainly end without loss of life.
To compile a list of the most shark-dangerous beaches also means going to waters that are home to these three ocean predators. And so we find ourselves in Hawaii – which boasts a large number of tiger sharks – and in the seal-rich waters of Northern California, in an area known as the "Red Triangle" stretching from Bodega Bay to Ano Nuevo Island near Santa Cruz and out to the Farallon Islands (beyond San Francisco's Golden Gate).
The triangle includes Tomales Bay, Stinson Beach and the famously reclusive Western Marin enclave of Bolinas. Here, great whites lurk in vast numbers, and when a favourite surfing spot or abalone diving area happens to be just beyond the mouth of a bay or lagoon that also serves as a hatchery for seal pups. Well, you can see the potential for trouble.
From Cape Town – up the gorgeous Garden Route, and beyond to Durban – South Africa is famously shark-infested.
The fishing village of Gansbaai, near Cape Town, for example, is known as Shark Alley for its unrivalled density of great whites. And the mouth of Kosi Bay, in KwaZulu Natal, is known for its aggressive Zambezi, or bull sharks. Of course, sharks populate large bodies of water – they don't stalk individual beaches (or surfers). However, it's possible to create a list of some of the more shark-infested beaches of the world.
Of the more than 400 shark species in the world, says the ISAF, only about 30 types are known to have attacked humans. And only three have a reputation for the highest number of "unprovoked" attacks: great whites, tiger sharks, and bull sharks (the last, known as Zambezi sharks in South Africa, have earned a particularly bad reputation for their mix of aggression and ability to swim upstream into shallow freshwater rivers and inlets).
The east coast, more densely populated, sees more shark attacks annually, and yet the south coast sees more fatalities because of its great whites.
Here, great whites are known for leaping fully out of the water as they attack, and swimming with these magnificent creatures (in protective cages!) has become something of a tourist attraction.
Sources differ as to which of the three spots – Northern California, Australia or South Africa – holds the record for the highest number of attacks. We've read the reports and seen the photographs.
The good news is the ISAF reports that more people perish because of bees, wasps and snakes – or from drowning, for that matter – than from shark attacks. (And in fact, more beachgoers have to get stitches for damage from shells than from sharks).
But just to be safe, here's a list of the world's most shark-infested beaches.
#1. Kosi Bay, South Africa: Zambezi sharks
Located in KwaZulu Natal, bordering Mozambique in a dramatically beautiful, unspoiled corner of South African paradise, Kosi Bay is a series of four lakes that eventually connects to the warm Indian Ocean through an estuary abundant in flora and fauna. Zambezi sharks (the South African name for famously aggressive Bull sharks) are known for making forays in search of food deep into freshwater lakes and rivers, and this is certainly evident in the fish-rich waters of Kosi Bay.
#2. Gansbaai, South Africa: Great white sharks
“Shark Alley” is a narrow channel between two small islands off the coast of Gansbaai, a charming fishing village and holiday destination east of Cape Town. It is also home to one of the densest populations of great whites in the world—and so if you’re keen to cage dive with this much-maligned and misunderstood beauty of the deep, here’s a good place to do it.
#3.Brisbane, Australia, Australia’s coastal waters are filled with sharks of all kinds, but if you’re traveling Down Under there are a few things you should know. While the highest number of attacks occur on the east coast (in areas of densest population) most fatal attacks occur in the colder southern waters—home of more seals and more great whites (locally known as pointers). A quick scan of shark-related news items over the years will include stories from cities such as Adelaide, Sydney and even Perth on the west coast. And yet the wisdom seems to be that no beach is entirely safe. We decided to put beautiful Brisbane on our list because of a recent local news headline: “Shark mauls horse in Brisbane River.” Enough said.
#4. Bolinas Beach, Northern California: Great whites
This tiny enclave, just north of San Francisco in western Marin County, is notorious for its bohemian ways and its desire to keep the rest of the world at bay (apparently townsfolk frequently remove the turn-off sign on Route One). But that doesn’t keep the sharks away. Like its neighbors Stinson Beach and the Point Reyes Seashore (including the mouth of Tomales Bay), Bolinas is located smack dab in the middle of the Red Triangle (a region marked by its high density of great white sharks). And so it appears on our list as one of the coolest shark spots to put your toes in the water.
#5. New Smyrna Beach, Florida: Blacktip and spinner sharks
What do you get when you mix lovely sub-tropical weather with gorgeous white-sand beaches in a charming central-coastal Florida town that offers everything from shopping to outdoor sports and recreation to history and nightlife? Correct: lots of tourists. And what do you get when you mix tourists with sharks—some of which, young blacktips and spinners in particular, can’t always tell the difference between a human and a fish? Correct again: “Shark attack capital of the world.” A dubious honor.
#6. Umhlanga Rocks, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Great white and bull sharks
Swimming at Umhlanga Rocks—a popular beach resort on the KwaZulu Natal coast just north of famously sharky Durban, South Africa—is perfectly safe. All the guides will tell you so. The guides might or might not mention why: nets. Umhlanga Rocks was one of the first shark-infested spots to benefit from protective nets in the 1960s, and to this day serious attacks have been dramatically reduced. However, recent reports, including a National Geographic story, reveal that the Natal Sharks Board (the organization that oversees the nets) is rethinking its policy. The underwater barriers do keep out great whites, bulls, and tiger sharks—but they are indiscriminate, killing a number of harmless creatures, too, including dolphins, rays and turtles.
According to the ISAF, Oahu boasts the second-highest number of confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks recorded in the Hawaiian island chain since 1882. If Oahu’s infamous North Shore waves aren’t enough to make you think twice before entering the water—can you say Bonsai Pipeline?—here’s something that might. Just three miles north (a 15-minute boat ride) the shark presence is so consistent that at least one “shark encounter” tour guide won’t ask you to pay if you don’t see any of the beautiful creatures. Tiger sharks are typically rare on these tours, but in 2005 one guide did spend a few hair-raising and thrilling minutes swimming (cage free!) with none other than a great white. Yes, there’s video to prove it.
#8. Recife, Brazil
Sharks favors reefs and so do surfers—one for the waves, the other for the fish. Recife, a lovely beach town on Brazil’s northeast coast, boasts a coral reef that attracts copious numbers of sharks that come to feed in the area. Which is why, according to the ISAF’s regional map of “confirmed unprovoked shark attacks” (covering 1931–2006), the state of Pemambuco (where Recife is located) boasts the highest number of shark attacks by far for all of South America. And why, when you visit the balmy beachside paradise, the locals will tell you to stay close to shore. Very close.
#9. Kahana, West Maui, Hawaii
According to the International Shark Attack File, since 1882 there have been just over 100 reports of unprovoked attacks in the entire Hawaiian island chain (the most, 34, occurring off of Maui). When you compare this to population size (roughly 1.2 million) and the many millions of annual tourists, that total of 100 is happily low. However, Hawaii is home to about 40 different shark species, including the occasionally aggressive tiger shark, and so incidents (including fatalities) do occur. In early May of this year, a swimmer was bitten on the foot by an 18-foot-long tiger shark in about 14 feet of water off of a south Maui beach. The last recorded fatal encounter occurred in 2004 off of Kahana, on Maui’s west coast, which is why this spot makes our list.
#10. West End, Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas: Tiger Sharks
Stories of shark attacks in the Bahamas and Caribbean are as old as the region’s tales of piracy, walking the plank, and buried treasure. Along with neighboring Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Florida, the region is replete with sharks of all types, including blacktips, hammerheads, and bull sharks. According to the ISAF, Grand Bahama Island has seen only 4 unprovoked attacks since 1749 (none fatal), but that’s still more than all others in the Bahamas. And besides, West End on Grand Bahama is home to what experienced divers call “Tiger Beach”—a spot 20 miles off this coastline that “a lot of very big sharks call home.” Frankly, any beach destination hosting such a density of tiger sharks that cage diving companies are able to advertise “the biggest of the Bahamas sharks in the shortest amount of time” should be on a list like ours. We’re sure you agree.
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