Warning: The true accounts you’re about to read might scare the fishing pants off you. In reality, the odds of facing a frightening wild animal are infinitesimal, but shark encounters are not impossible. A bit of caution, a little common sense and some luck keep most of us out of harm’s way. These accounts are not intended to discourage anyone from kayak fishing. Instead, the following stories serve as a healthy reminder that once you paddle away from the land, you’re no longer the top of the food chain.
Of course, sharks occupy the top spot on any close encounters list. After all, many common species are numero uno among apex predators. A fisherman bobbing about in a little plastic boat is invading the shark’s world at the shark’s mercy. Unfortunately, mercy isn’t a term sharks understand. Fortunately, sharks seldom notice kayakers. Then again, seldom is a long way from never.
Kayak Fishing Shark Encounters
Great White Shark
Under federal protection, sea lions have proliferated along the Pacific coast. While this is good news for sea lions, it’s better news for great white sharks. One study estimates more than 2,000 great white sharks spend time off the San Francisco Bay Area—a tenfold increase from the 1990s.
Great white sharks can grow to 20 feet long and 4,400 pounds, making them one of the biggest predators on earth. When you’re the size of a minivan and constantly moving, a 350-pound sea lion is a nice snack.
So, it’s not surprising that interactions with kayakers have increased as well. In most cases, a great white will investigate the angler, determine plastic is not on the menu and move on, leaving the angler terrified but unharmed.
Terrified is the right word to described David Alexander of Santa Rosa, California. He met a great white who hadn’t received the no-plastic memo. A lifelong angler and long-time kayak enthusiast, Alexander was fishing for ling a few miles off the beach when he moved into shallower water.
“I remember hitting something and thinking the kayak struck a rock. But I was still too deep to hit bottom,” he says.
By the time Alexander put two and two together, the shark, estimated at 15 feet long, opened wide and clamped down on the bow of his kayak. The violent bite shook Alexander out of the kayak and into the water.
“I can still see the shark’s teeth, jaws and dark, black eyes,” he says.
While Alexander was meeting face-to-face with a man-eater, his
fishing buddy was frantically calling on the VHF radio for help. In minutes, a flotilla of boats surrounded Alexander to render assistance. It took Alexander three tries to right his kayak and climb back onboard.
The boat was taking on water fast, and Alexander pumped furiously to stay afloat. The shark, meanwhile, lost interest and swam away. “I’ve learned some valuable lessons,” Alexander says, like keeping his bilge pump in a center hatch and carrying a shark repellent. A year after the encounter, Alexander has returned to kayak fishing in the ocean, but not without some trepidation, “I can still see that eye, it was so black.”
Maui is known for beautiful beaches, incredible whale watching and giant tiger sharks. Last spring, a 10-foot tiger took interest in a bright orange tandem kayak carrying a local, Dan Sullivan and his son Tristan. The Sullivans were watching a group of whales when the shark came out of the deep to bite the stern of their kayak.
“It was just inches from my leg,” Dan Sullivan told the Maui News.
As the shark thrashed the hull, the massive fish’s weight forced the front of the kayak into the air, flipping Daniel and Tristan into the ocean. With the kayak filling with water and starting to sink, the two swam for their lives. The fish did not pursue the pair as they stroked over a mile to shore.
Later, the kayak was recovered showing the clear pattern of a tooth-rimmed jaw more than 15 inches across puncturing the bottom of the hull.
Thanks to a GoPro camera, a video of California angler Mark McCracken’s battle with a great hammerhead shark went viral and even made national news. McCraken was fishing a half mile off Santa Barbara, California, when the large hammerhead circled his kayak.
McCraken cracked the fish on the head with his paddle blade, but the huge shark didn’t get scared, it got mad. As McCraken hightailed to the beach, the hammerhead continued to follow and rush the kayak. Hammerheads usually feed on baitfish and other sharks. They are often spotted lazing just below the water surface. Few hammerhead versus human encounters have been recorded. But this “super-aggressive” hammerhead, as McCracken called it, was using a different playbook.
The fish was fixated on McCraken’s kayak. In the YouTube video, the shark’s dorsal fin is clearly visible cutting the surface back and forth in pursuit. McCracken made it to shore, but even there, his camera shows the hammerhead continuing to lurk just off the beach. “It was pretty creepy,” McCracken said in a news report.
This article was first published in Kayak Angler Issue 45. Subscribe to Kayak Angler and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos.
A hammerhead has better vision and greater depth perception than most sharks. | Feature photo: Shutterstock.com