The Associate Press is reporting that the Coast Guard has issued an advisory for boaters off northeast coast of the U.S. The article features several quotes from Al Johnson, the 1st Coast Guard District’s recreational boating specialist. There is no mention of Johnson’s expertise on white shark behavior, although the article does quote him on the subject. While Johnson does say that predation is generally not a concern for boaters and paddlers, he goes on to state…
“But I have no doubt that a great white shark that swims into your comfort zone would surely find a splashing paddle or dangling hand inviting. I also expect that same passing shark would spend little time differentiating between boater, paddler and prey.”
While it’s certainly prudent (for multiple reasons) to make boaters aware of the presence of white sharks in the area, the statements from Johnson seem to be a bit off-base. There are multiple first-hand accounts of people kayaking around large white sharks without the “splashing of a paddle” causing aggressive behavior from the sharks. The most well-known white shark encounters involving kayaks was documented by Michael Scholl and Thomas Peschak for Africa Geographic.
That being said, just because other people have kayaked with white sharks without incident does not necessarily mean that it’s something that is recommended for everybody to do. In fact, just last year there was a case of a kayak being bumped by a white shark in Australia that resulted in the kayaker being tossed into the water. The kayaker was unharmed and swam to a nearby boat.
However, to say there is “no doubt” that a shark would consider a dangling paddle “inviting” or spend little time differentiating between prey and a boater/paddler is a fairly bold statement. Research and observed behavior of white sharks has shown that white sharks can often be very discriminating about targeting prey during a predation event.
So, while Johnson does offer some sound advice to boaters on some levels, his rationale behind the advice is somewhat questionable, in my opinion. Should the public be aware that white sharks are in the area? Of course, but the information regarding the presence of these animals should not be accompanied by conjecture that seems to be in stark contrast to available research and observed behavior of white sharks.
At the end of the day, white sharks are large predatory animals, and from that respect a level of caution should always be taken in their presence, as there is certainly a level of danger associated with them. However, research has shown that they are also not the mindless attacking machines of horror movies and folklore who attack anything in sight. It is important for those who might encounter these animals to understand that, in order to avoid a panicked response, so that encounters can be addressed with common sense and level-headed thinking.
Here’s to a safe holiday weekend for all of those celebrating Independence Day this weekend, whether you be in the water or on the land.