California shark attacks: fear and facts

california shark attacks

Those afraid to so much as set a toe in the ocean for fear of sharks are often told that far more people die annually from reactions to stings from insects than are claimed by the bite of Jaws.

Indeed, the average number of fatalities worldwide per year between 2001 and 2010 from unprovoked shark attacks was 4.4, according to the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Conversely, between 1979 and 1990 there were 718 venomous deaths – mostly from bees and wasps – in the United States alone, according to the World Health Organization. That’s nearly 60 deaths annually in that period, according to the Toledo Blade.

Yet, as the Blade pointed out, no one talks about death, or potential death, from the sting of bees, hornets or even fire ants, all of which can bring on anaphylactic shock for those with allergies to insect venom.

And while shark attacks can occur just about anywhere in the coastal United States, California seems to get its fair share of publicity as a hotspot for such incidents.

But as the above map shows, there have been relatively few shark attacks in California over the past 160-plus years, particularly when one considers the millions of people who flock to the Golden State’s beaches each year to swim, surf, snorkel and whatnot in its waters.

The map (interactive version here) was compiled by the Santa Cruz Sentinel using data dating back to 1851 courtesy of, which tracks worldwide incidents of shark encounters. Red markers indicate fatal attacks; purple markers indicate non-fatal attacks.

The locations were pinpointed using the best available data, but represent close approximations in most cases. The descriptions are from the SAS website, and due to the nature of shark attacks, not all encounters could be verified, according to the Sentinel.

The map shows 19 fatal shark attacks along California coasts since 1851, but only nine of these have taken place in the past 50 years, which is rather remarkable given the population boom the state has seen in that time.

Map showing 1962 shark attack at Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park.

Map showing 1962 shark attack at Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park.

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, there have been 109 shark attacks in California since 1926, including 10 fatal attacks.

One imagines a whole lot more people have died in California from bee and hornet stings during that same period.

For whatever reason, humans have an innate fear of sharks, much as many folks have an ingrained fear of snakes. On more than one occasion I’ve seen people drive out of their way on a back road just to deliberately run down a snake.

Yet, since 2000, on average just one person a year has died from the bite a venomous snake in the US.

The unfortunate aspect of this fear is that sharks and snakes are decreasing in numbers, the result of relentless hunting.

Earlier this month the California Fish and Game Commission voted to consider a petition to add the great white shark to the state’s endangered species list.

Environmental groups have been alarmed by recent studies that have estimated the great white population, at 339 adults and “sub-adults” off the Marin County coast and Mexico, the two main great white habitats, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

And the number of reproductively mature females was estimated at a slightly less than 100. The estimates are far lower than researchers expected, the Mercury News added.

On a side note, of all the shark attacks shown on the California map, only one didn’t take place along the coast. If you click on the purple circle denoting an attack in the San Francisco area, you’ll notice a non-fatal event right in the middle of Golden Gate Park.

On June 4, 1962, Norval J. “Tom” Green, apparently an employee of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, was bitten on the right forearm while attempting to capture a captive sevengill shark. Not exactly the dreaded land shark, but likely close enough for Mr. Green’s liking.

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