Story at a glance

  • The study found juvenile great whites cannot significantly differentiate between humans swimming and paddling surfboards from their usual prey.
  • Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia compared underwater video of humans swimming and paddling on different sized surfboards with seals and sea lions swimming.
  • “We found that surfers, swimmers and pinnipeds (seals and sea-lions) on the surface of the ocean will look the same to a white shark looking up from below, because these sharks can’t see fine details or colors,” researchers said.

New research is backing up the theory that great white shark attacks on humans may be the result of mistaken identity. 

A study published in the journal of the Royal Society Interface suggests great whites have trouble visually distinguishing surfers and swimmers at the surface of the water from their typical prey. 

Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia compared underwater video of humans swimming and paddling on different sized surfboards with seals and sea lions swimming in a large aquarium. They used both stationary and moving cameras pointed toward the surface of the water. 

“We attached a GoPro to an underwater scooter, and set it to travel at a typical cruising speed for predatory sharks,” Laura Ryan, the study’s lead author, said in a release


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Filters and modeling programs simulating the way a juvenile white shark — which are responsible for a greater share of attacks on humans — would see the movements and shapes of the different objects were applied to the footage. 

Sharks are likely colorblind and researchers said the main visual cue for the apex predators is the silhouette shape of its prey. 

Using the model, researchers concluded juvenile great whites cannot significantly differentiate between humans swimming and paddling surfboards from their prey. 

“We found that surfers, swimmers and pinnipeds (seals and sea-lions) on the surface of the ocean will look the same to a white shark looking up from below, because these sharks can’t see fine details or colors,” Ryan said. 

While great white shark attacks are rare, incidents of sharks biting humans have increased over the past two decades. Great whites, bull sharks and tiger sharks account for the most attacks on humans. 


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Published on Oct 27, 2021