Great white sharks top many lists as “the most dangerous sharks” to humans. This is because the great white sharks have the most unprovoked attacks against 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.
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 were swimming by people all day long, every day. Christopher Lowe is one of the authors of the study and director of CSULB Shark Lab. He told the Boston Herald .
“And, the fact that nobody was bitten goes against the popular belief that you will be attacked if a shark is nearby. 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.
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.
“This behavior is normal and I don’t think that the sharks choose their habitats based on humans,” Macdonald said.
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.
Your chance of getting bit by a great white, or any other shark for that matter, is extremely rare. Lightning is more likely to strike you and kill you.
In fact, most of these cases in California are of mistaken identity, according to the researchers. It’s possible that the shark believes it is biting a seal but it could be a surboard, a person, or even a surfboard.
“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.
“We really aren’t on the menu for sharks of this size range,” Papastamatiou said.
They eat stingrays and small fish as well as fish that live on the seafloor like halibut.
“So when they hunt, they are hunting on the seafloor rather than at the surface where people are. Rex continued, “We don’t believe that sharks are interested in us at all.”
However, it doesn’t mean the risk of a bite from a juvenile great white is zero — it’s just very low.