Scientists Shocked That White Sharks Swim Near Humans but Don’t Attack

  • Researchers found that juvenile white sharks swam close to humans 97% of the time.
  • Juvenile white sharks grow up to become great white sharks, known for being dangerous to humans.
  • One researcher said they were “shocked” that juvenile great whites never attacked any humans.

Great white sharks top many lists as “the most dangerous sharks” to humans. That’s because they hold the record for the highest number of unprovoked shark attacks on humans.

However, a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE earlier this month from researchers at California State University Long Beach Shark Lab reveals a different side of juvenile great whites.

Using drones, the researchers surveyed the activity of sharks for a span of just over two years in the waters of 26 beaches in southern California.

A researcher holds up a white drone to use to survey juvenile white sharks in their natural habitat.

The researchers used drones to survey how close juvenile white sharks swam to humans in the water.

Sean DuFrene

They conducted a total of 1,644 aerial drone surveys and found that juvenile great white sharks came close to human swimmers, paddle boarders, and surfers 97% of the time during their study, but the sharks never attacked once.

“Frankly, we were shocked. Sharks would interact with people every single day, multiple times a day, and they would just swim by,” Christopher Lowe, one of the study authors and the director of CSULB Shark Lab, told the Boston Herald.

A person on a paddle board with a juvenile white shark swimming nearby.

Juvenile white sharks swam closest to paddle boarders.

Carlos Guana

“And the fact that no one was being bitten smacks in the face of the misconception that if there’s a white shark nearby, you’ll be attacked. This shows that’s not the case,” he added.

Why juvenile white sharks swim near humans so often

From the researchers’ drone footage, it may look like juvenile white sharks like to hang around swimmers and surfers. But it’s probably not because they’re fond of us.

The shallow water near the beaches “is actually the natural habitat the juvenile white sharks use. It just so happens to also be popular with humans,” Yannis Papastamatiou, an expert on shark behavior and an assistant professor at Florida International University, told Insider.

A woman snorkeling touches a stingray underwater.

Stingrays, not people, are more to juvenile sharks’ dinner preferences.

Stephen Frink/Getty Images

They prefer to live in shallow waters, probably because food is abundant here and these habitats also provide protection from predation or competition with larger, great white sharks. Big sharks mostly dwell in the open ocean or deep sea regions.

Also, juvenile great whites prefer warmer waters, which again may overlap with regions beachgoers flock to.

“They’re using the same habitats as human recreational water users,” said Catherine Macdonald, a marine conservation biologist and director of the University of Miami Shark Research and Conservation Program.

Graphic showing that juvenile white sharks swam closest to paddle boarders.

The scientists found that sharks venture closest to paddle boarders and surfers and not as close to waders and bodyboarders.

Patrick Rex

“This is completely normal shark behavior and there is nothing that suggests to me that sharks are choosing locations based on human presence,” Macdonald added.

Why juvenile white sharks don’t typically attack humans

Although great white sharks are infamous for attacking humans, the actual number of attacks is low. Over the centuries, there’s been a recorded 326 unprovoked attacks and 52 human fatalities, the World Animal Foundation reported.

A person putting their hand on the nose of a great white shark as it breaks the water's surface with its giant mouth open wide.

You’re more likely to get bit by an adult, great white shark than a juvenile.

Alexis Rosenfeld / Contributor / Getty Images

Your chance of getting bit by a great white, or any other shark for that matter, is extremely rare. You’re more likely to get struck and die by lightning.

In fact, most of these cases in California are of mistaken identity, according to the researchers. The shark thinks it is biting into a seal, and instead, it’s a surfboard or a person.

Arial photo of juvenile white sharks swimming off the coast of southern California.

Patrick Rex

“We rarely, if ever, see the shark actually consume humans. They bite, then release the person when they realize we aren’t a seal,” Patrick Rex, an author of the study and a field technician at the CSULB Shark Lab, told Insider.

Moreover, Rex said the attacks mostly happen with adult great whites (at least 21 feet long) as they are the ones that feed on seals and sea lions that are human-shaped and -sized.

A woman snorkeling looks face to face with a sea lion underwater.

Sea lions are around the same size and shape as humans, which is why some sharks may mistake us for a meal.

Brett Monroe Garner/Getty Images

On the flip side, juvenile sharks are only about half the size of adult sharks, and therefore, avoid hunting large mammals, like humans.

“We really aren’t on the menu for sharks of this size range,” Papastamatiou said.

Their diet includes stingrays, small fish, and fish on the bottom of the seafloor, like halibut.

Two paddle boarders with a juvenile shark swimming very close by.

Carlos Gauna

“So when they hunt, they are hunting on the seafloor rather than at the surface where people are. So really, we don’t think the sharks want anything to do with us in general,” Rex added.

However, it doesn’t mean the risk of a bite from a juvenile great white is zero — it’s just very low.

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